Seasonal Reminder-Power Outages: Part 1

November 19, 2016

By human nature; we do not appreciate certain things until they are gone.

The blizzard conditions in the central west area this week reminded me of being prepared for the weather as it begins to change. Hopefully you have not already been effected by these conditions. But, it serves as a reminder that good preparation can ease the difficulty. The items mentioned don’t even come close for those that might be caught in the direct path of devastating weather conditions, but can help the rest of us that may be near the areas.

If you have suffered issues of direct impact, look at  the Disaster Safety site mentioned below as well as the Red Cross for assistance as well as a way to pitch in and help.

Regardless of the weather condition, it most common for it to impact the power grid.  Many times, these conditions can be related to tornado’s, hurricanes, thunderstorms, snow, ice and the list goes on. Several of these type disasters can be devastating especially if you experience a direct impact. Look at the Disaster Safety site for concerns of direct impact. Statistically, secondary effect outages has a broader impact but is typically resolved in a short time frame. A loss of power will impact your life immediately, and you do not have a lot of control on the time or day it will occur.  According to the IEEE standard 1366-1998, the median outage in North America is 1.36 hours per year per household.  In other words, half the households in the U.S. will experience  power outages totaling 1.36 hours or greater. That could be in small segments or one event.   For the purpose of this article I will break down preparedness by duration of loss, 1) 8 hours or less, 2) 72 hours or less,  3) 7 days or less, and 4) Long term. Granted, knowing how long the event will last is the biggest question that none of us really know. However, shorter outages are usually related to severe storms. The greater the coverage of the storm will impact the length of time for restoration. More severe conditions such as hurricanes, tornadoes and long duration storms will all impact the length of restoration.

8 hours or less: An outage of 8 hours can pass pretty quick but having a few essentials will smooth out most issues.

  1. Where is my flashlight? I have dozens of normal flashlights (the kind with no batteries) and one large rechargeable unit. But if an outage were to go beyond a couple of hours I might be in trouble. Use candles for stationary locations throughout the house and save your flashlight for moving around or going outside but keep candles away for other combustible items (curtains, cloth, paper, etc.)  As for flashlights, there has been a recent revolution in small lighting. It’s the LED bulb. The LED uses less than a 1/10 the power of a normal resistance (incandescent) type bulb.   Due to the low power requirements of LED bulbs they can be powered by different sources such as wind up flywheels, super capacitors or rechargeable batteries. radiolightchargerThe American Red Cross has endorsed several, but I like the RF150  that combines an LED Flashlight, radio and cell phone charger. It’s a bit pricey at $30 and up but it is truly an emergency tool that will last for years with little maintenance. This one unit will cover item #1, 4 and 5  all in one unit allowing you to find it quickly or lose everything all at one time. Pretty cool, wind it for a minute and get an hour of service. There are several other choice on the market that cover the requirement.  If you have one or plan to get one, storing it near a window with lots of sun will keep it well charged. Look for my review of this product under techy things.
  2.  Where is the phone number to the Utility?  This sounds simple, but if you don’t have number 1 covered it makes #2 that much harder. If you live in a state where electricity and natural gas  is deregulated, knowing the name or number of your utility companies could be a 15 minute discussion. Locate your phone bill, electricity bill, gas bill, and etc. they should have a number posted; “In case of an outage call this number“.  Make a label, sticker or note and place it on your new emergency flashlight. TIP: You need to call them and report the outage even if you know your neighbor has already reported it. Utilities will increase the severity of the condition by the number of reports (phone calls) logged against the outage. Most utilities can provide you a reasonable status of the condition. The smaller the problem, the easier it is for them to estimate the length of the outage. If you know the outage is wide spread and they continue to be vague on how long, you may need to prepare for a longer outage than 8 hours. Also, continue to check the news on the radio.
  3. I need heat!! In the winter this can be critical, not only for you but your house.  If you have forced air central heating, you’re screwed as you will need both electricity and natural gas  to make the system work. Having a fire-place, oven or bathroom heater  with natural gas will get you through an 8 hour period unless you live in the northern climates.  These little camp heaters have hit the mainstream. With a small propane bottle, you can get about 6 hours of heat on the low setting. For longer duration, with an added hose, you can adapt the propane tank off your gas grill. These units are clean, safe, don’t smell and can be stored for a very long time.  portable-heaterTIP: In the winter, crack open the water faucets to a slow drip in the kitchen and bathrooms (especially those based on the exterior walls) to ensure they do not freeze. Also make sure you have a source of fresh air when using these heating devices as they can consume the oxygen. Even with these devices, the house is going to be cold, so the likelihood of freezing a pipe is greater.
  4. My phone does not work! If you still have a traditional telephone (land line) plugged in the wall it should still work assuming your phone does not require power from a wall outlet, this includes cordless phones. TIP: Always have at least one telephone that is like the one your mother had. Just plugged in the wall, no features,  lights, caller id, just a phone (aka POTS, plain old telephone set). The phone company does a great job of ensuring traditional dial tone, but this does not include Internet service, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) or any other non-traditional, non-regulated services.
  5. Where is my cell phone? Cell phone service is becoming more reliable as the consumer is becoming more dependent on it.  In many cases, the cell phone has taken the place of the POTS.  For the most part, if you use your cell phone sparingly, you can make 8 hours. Besides the unit mentioned in item 1, there are many solar phone chargers on the market, or you can use your car for short duration’s as well assuming you have a car adapter. Since most people keep their phone nearby, you can use a flashlight app to find your flashlight when you first loose power. Don’t use the phone long term for light as it will quickly kill the battery.
  6. Do I have a radio that works? Probably not other than the car. Mine has a battery that will protect the memory of stations and time setting but that’s about it.  You will need a radio like a flash light that does not require an electric cord. Weather specific radios are great, but some music sure passes the time. The radio (news) will help you gauge your needs beyond 8 hours. See item 1.
  7. We have no hot water! Maybe, maybe not. If you have an 1)electric water heater, 2)gas-fired tank-less water heater or 3) some pilotless gas water heaters, you could have limited or no hot water. I have a tank-less water heater so for me its a big NO for hot water. However, I have a gas stove so I can cover the small requirements. With an 8 hour failure, a 50 gallon water heater can cover your immediate needs.

You probably already recognized some items are missing. The list is based on an 8 hour or less outage. For longer outages look at my post for Electrical Power Outages Part II, as  things start to get more interesting as time goes on.


Electrical Service-Panel

January 18, 2009

The electrical service panel would be considered the heart of the electrical system. A properly sized, correctly wired panel will serve the electrical needs of the home for many years. Proper care and inspection will reduce the potential of system level problems and failures.

 

electrical-service-panel1If you have many of today’s modern conveniences such as a dishwasher, clothes washer, dryer, electric heat and air-conditioning, your service is likely 100 Amps or greater. If your house has anything smaller than 100 Amps, upgrading  your service to 150 Amps or greater is highly recommended. If you have very few of the items mentioned, the inspection covered in this section may or may not reveal immediate problems associated with a small panel, but as you add more electrical devices, you will start to see issues that are discussed in this topic.

Look at the table below to help determine what level of electrical service panel you may have. Generally speaking, service panels are not well marked to provide you an exact rating number, but the fewer positions the lower the rating. More positions typically equates to larger service. This is all based on the assumption that the panel is supplied with large enough cables in the first place. If you live in an older house, don’t be surprised if you have add-on panels that are used to provide additional capacity, if they are installed correctly there should not be any problems. If you question the cable sizes, have an electrician look at the panel for greater clarity.

 

servicepanelchart-fullinit_

 

With our increased dependency on electricity, the minimum acceptable size of AC service panels has slowly increased over the years. If your house is in category A or B with the original AC service panel, upgrading to a 150 Amps or greater can be a wise decision, as adding additional circuits will be problematic. In fact, some insurance companies may not issue or renew a policy because of the fire risk associated with the smaller panels.

INSPECTING THE PANEL

With relative ease, and a tool or two, the homeowner can inspect the electrical service panel to identify conditions that may warrant further investigation or repair. Additionally, if you would like to analyze your AC requirements, send me an email and I can forward you an spreadsheet to calculate your AC demand. This will provide you a general reference of demand vs. capacity.

Visual Inspection: This level of inspection is performed with no more than the door open. No screwdrivers or tools should be required to expose the face of the panel. There should not be any exposed wires at this point. Your service panel should (generally) resemble this picture (for a panel newer than 1960). Look at the general condition of the panel.

  1. The door should open and close without difficulty or obstruction.
  2.  The panel should fit snug to the adjacent wall. No gaping holes around the panel face around the Sheetrock or wall covering. If you find conduit or Jacketed Metal Conduit (JMC) leaving the sides of the panel, this is okay assuming the electrical conductors are not exposed.
  3. With the door open, look for missing knockout where breakers may have been removed. TIP: Home centers have plastic filler plugs to cover these holes. 
  4.  No standing water, corrosion or signs of water in the panel is acceptable. Call an electrician for resolution.
  5. Look at all the breakers for deformation, if they look melted or are no longer holding their original shape, they should be replaced. This can also be an indication the breaker has or is exceeding its limitation.

Heat and your AC Service Panel: Heat generated by the electrical service panel is an indication of potential problems that may result in an interruption of service. Heat can be recognized in a couple of different ways. 1) by touch or, 2) or digital  infrared thermometer.  If you don’t own a digital thermometer, they can be purchased for a reasonable price ($15 to $100) over the Internet or discount tool supply. The digital thermometer will be referenced throughout HomeownerBOB and its a great addition to your tool box. You will find lots of uses for it.inferred-thermometer

Before you look for heat issues, try to answer these questions.

  1.  Have you noticed that you regularly trip breakers?
  2. Does it occur at a certain time of the day?
  3. Does it occur when you use specific appliances such as a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer?
  4. Is it the same breaker(s) that have to be regularly reset?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s a good decision to replace the breaker(s) now. All breakers have a service life and can deteriorate over time due to frequent tripping or heavy loads. Large commercial breakers can be tested and repaired, but it is more economically feasible to replace residential breakers if there is any question of their reliability. Furthermore, this will further the isolation process of the breaker if it continues to trip.

  1. Test by Touch: Without a digital thermometer, you can place a finger on the face of the plastic breakers. TIP Look for temperature differential. If you find an individual breaker noticeably warm, and it has been tripping, you may have an issue, so have the breaker changed out. If you already changed it out and it is still warm, the load on the circuit is probably high. If the breaker has not been tripping, no further action is required. Just make a note in your inspection journal and look for a change from one inspection to the next.
  2. Test by Infrared Thermometer: TIP: Look for temperature differential. If you find 25% in temperature difference between the hottest breaker and the coolest, and it is not tripping, log it in your home inspection journal.
  3. Tripping Breakers: If the breaker has started tripping, replace it first, then try the following trick to resolve the issue if it continued to trip after replacement. TRICK: Identify everything plugged into this circuit and try moving some appliances to other circuits to de-load this one. If you can live with this change, you have solved the issue, no further action is required. If it’s not a convenient arrangement, you may need to hire an electrician to re-associate some outlets to different circuits. This can get expensive, but it will take an on-site analysis to figure it out. Regardless, re-associating the circuit should solve the problem.

Testing and Exercising Circuit Breakers:Some professionals recommend circuit breaker testing by switching breakers on/off 5 consecutive times once per year. HomeownerBOB considers this optional. If the service panel is over 10 years old and breakers were never exercised for test, cycling them may actually cause some deterioration. TIP: Determine the brand and style of the breakers and buy a couple of the most common sizes (15, 20’s and 30’s are the most popular) and keep them for an emergency. If you choose to exercise the circuit breakers in the future, you will have ready access to a replacements. If the house is fairly new, exercise them if you wish.

Service Panel and Breaker Caution:  If your service panel is a Federal Pacific brand, some municipalities require them to be replaced. FPE Panel Controversy.

gfci-breaker GFCI Circuit Breakers:These special breakers will look different than a standard breaker as it includes a test and reset button, just like a GFI (ground fault interruption)outlet. In newer houses the electrician may wire an entire bathroom or all the kitchen circuits as GFCI in lieu of installing individual GFI outlets. You may also use an outlet tester with a GFI  testing feature to trip the breaker. Either way will work but HomeownerBOB prefers to test at the outlet as this allows you to associate the outlets with the breaker. See Outlets and Switches.

afci-breakerAFCI Circuit Breakers:  AFCI  breakers may look like a GFCI, both will be properly labeled to identify the difference. Arc Fault Circuit Interruption breakers are designed to prevent fires based on an arc flash that could occur in an electrical appliance. Read their full description in US Gov. AFCI doc for more information. Since 2002, the NEC has required these breakers be used with all bedroom circuits. TIP: These breakers can be quite sensitive and may trip for no apparent reason. If your inspection finds no fault, the breaker has been replaced and it continues to trip, you may consider having an electrician evaluate the circuit. Even though HomeownerBOB cannot recommend the removal and replacement of this breaker with nothing other than the same breaker, there have been cases where replacement with a traditional standard breaker has solved the problem without issue. 

Replacing Breakers: There are many links on how to change out a circuit breaker. Here is just one. Replace a circuit breaker.  If you are replacing your own breakers, they should ALWAYS be replaced with a like-for-like size and rating of the breaker being removed. NEVER up-size a breaker because it continues to trip. If you replaced the breaker because it was hot and it is still hot or it continues to trip. Make a note in your inspection journal. If it starts to trip over the year, follow the testing isolation method described above. The NEC (National Electric Code) allows for residential grade breakers to supply up to 80% of their rating. So in other words, if you have a 20 Amp breaker, the actual measured load should not exceed 16 Amps (1920 Watts) at any one time.


Electrical Service-Safety

January 12, 2009

effects-of-electshockElectrical Inspections may be a bit scary for the novice; it will be up to you to determine if the inspection is within your abilities. All inspections  will be non-intrusive. If you have ANY doubts, don’t do it, call a professional. As a safety precaution, never touch any live exposed wires with your hands or any metal objects.  Never stand in water or have wet hands when making inspections. All inspections identified by HomeownerBOB can be performed visually.

As you can see by the chart, it doesnt take much to cause damage to the human body. To put it in perspective, a blow dryer used to dry hair uses somewhere between 900 and 1500 watts of power. Converted to Amps puts it off the chart at approximately 7 to 13 amps.

Be careful and always err on side of safety.


Electrical Service Entrance

January 4, 2009

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During an extreme weather condition where the loss of electricity is widespread, individual service lines are consider lower priority than lines serving a community or neighborhood. For this reason, your home may be without services for an extended period of time if your only problem is the service entrance cable. Keeping you service cables free from tree limbs and obstructions will reduce your risk.

electrical-entrance2On the outside of the house, look for the location the electrical service arrives at the house. If you have a large black cable originating from a nearby utility pole, your service is considered aerial in lieu of underground. If you have underground service no routine or inspection is required. For aerial service, typically the utility pole is within 20 to 50 feet from the house. Visually follow the path of the cable to the house.

Look for a clean unobstructed path in which the cable travels to get to the house.   If there are tree limbs or other items pushing the cable from its natural path to the house, this condition should be addressed. If there has been limbs rubbing the cable, use binoculars to inspect cable sheath to make sure it is still intact. If trimming is required; a minimum of 18″ to 24″ area of free space should encircle the cable. If tree trimming this area has never been performed, this could be quite involved, but after you perform it the first time, yearly inspections and pruning will be simplified. DO NOT TOUCH THE CABLE WITH ANY DEVICE THAT COULD CONDUCT ELECTRICITY. Never use a metal object to move the cable. If you do not have appropriate trimming tools, consider hiring a professional tree trimmer. If you choose to perform the work yourself, only perform the work on a clear dry day. If there has ever been any large limbs fall on the service line, ensure the service line is still a minimum of 10 feet above the ground at its lowest point. If the service wire (drop) is too low, there is usually a reason for it as previously fallen tree limbs may have caused the damage. electrial-entrance31

A similar inspection of telephone and TV cable (CATV) should be performed as well. Different from the electrical service provider, the cable and telephone suppliers will trim the trees around their service lines between the house and the service poles, but it may be difficult to get them to perform this work just because the foliage is heavy. Typically, they only perform the function if there is degradation in service or they are on site for another reason. In other words, you can wait till it breaks and call them out to fix the problem or you can trim it yourself if the foliage around the lines need trimming. Normally there is no dangerous voltage or high current associated with the CATV or telephone line, but follow the same precautions as with the electrical service.

Additionally, both the CATV and telephone lines should retain a space cushion of approximately 12″ to 18″ below the electrical service drop in its parallel path to the house. It’s okay for the CATV and telephone lines to touch each other but not the electrical line.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Visually inspect the electrical service drop for cuts, chips, flakes or bare spots.
  2. Trim trees and shrubs away from the line.
  3. Ensure the electrical line is at least 10′ high at its lowest point.
  4. Repeat inspection and correction process for the CATV and telephone service drops.
  5. Contact the appropriate utility (or electrician) if the the service drop(s) are in need of replacement.