Why It Takes So Long to Fix a Power OutageS

A storm this weekend knocked out power to millions of buildings in the mid-Atlantic region. About 443,000 lost electricity in the Washington, DC area, and over 200,000 outages occurred in southern New Jersey. The utilities that serve those two markets, Pepco and Atlantic City Electric—say it might take until midnight on Friday, July 6, before everyone gets back online. July 6th? Are you kidding? Why does it take so long?

First off, it's important to remember that a lot of buildings need power worse than our homes. When repairing a major outage, the crews first address problems at the supply lines that serve hospitals, water filtration plants, and fire or police stations. If your home happens to be along one of those substation's lines, then you may have power quickly—if not, you'll wait in the dark. A statement issued by Atlantic City Electric on Sunday morning said: "Crews have restored power to major parts of the backbone of the region's electricity infrastructure."

The nervous system metaphor is an accurate way to describe what goes on during repairs. To loosely chart the backbone comparison, a utility's power station is like a brain, its substations are the individual vertebra, and the power lines trail outward like nerves through transformers, where the voltage is stepped down for use in individual homes.

The types of customers that may wait longer are the more isolated buildings—the ones who would be at the fingertips, or the extremities—of the electrical nervous system. For a remote development in southern New Jersey, an entire street or subdivision could be served by a few critical transformers. The complex work to fix downed power lines—clearing a tree, replacing a pole, repairing a transformer—will typically take place in areas serving thousands of homes before the utility dedicates those resources to the lines that only serve a few hundred. The first action is the one that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest numbers. Fitting that a utility would follow Utilitarian philosophy.

Customers who have sweated through long outages in the past might know they're vulnerable, and might have generators standing by. Great! But be careful: A few words of generator safety from one of the great experts on the topic, Popular Mechanics' Roy Berendsohn. Plug the generator into a transfer switch wired directly to the house's breaker panel—not a wall outlet. To ground a generator, either run a wire from the machine's grounding screw to the grounding bus bar on the service panel, or just stick it in the ground (check your particular model's instructions). And, most important—don't run the thing indoors, or in the garage—even if it's raining.

Image credit: AP / Salisbury Daily Times, Kristin Roberts