What Is a Power Outage, and How Are They Caused?

March 17, 2023
Electrical in Seattle, WA

In modern cities, like Seattle, it is easy to take electricity for granted. Because electricity plays such an important role in everyday life, most people don’t think about it until there is a sudden power outage. When the power goes out, practically every aspect of life can be affected such as school, work, plumbing and recreation. Without power, it is virtually impossible to see after dark.

In Seattle as well as in other large cities, the electric power grid is designed to withstand storms, human error, and other situations that can possibly shut down the power. And while the system works in many cases, it can fail leading to power outages.

What Is a Power Outage?

When the power goes out in Seattle or in any other location, what is happening is that the electrical power network is unavailable. Several factors can cause power outages. However, regardless of the cause, the situation is defined as a “power outage” if it affects entire regions, not if it affects just one home. In a neighborhood where all of the houses are receiving electricity except for one, the issue is likely with the circuit breaker in the household and not the result of a power outage.

What Is the Cause of Power Outages?

There are a lot of reasons why power outages happen. However, the three most common reasons are an overloaded system, human error, or weather-related causes.

In each of these instances, something interrupts the power generation and electricity supply to the homes in a region. Sometimes animals will interfere with power lines. Heavy rains, ice storms, or hurricanes can damage a city’s electrical infrastructure. Or a person can crash into a utility pole leading to a temporary power outage.

Electrical utility companies may program a power outage as part of their scheduled maintenance. However, unless the maintenance is to fix an emergency situation, the utility company will usually inform households that will be affected in advance.

How Long Do Power Outages Last?

Most power outages last just a few seconds. The lights go out, and then power is quickly restored. However, some power outages can last days or even weeks. A power outage may last longer if the cause is something that has damaged power lines or equipment, like freezing rain or high winds.

When there is extreme cold or heat, homeowners might use their HVAC system more which can put excessive strain on the system causing it to overload. Power outages of this type can take hours, if not days, to correct.

What Is a Blackout?

A blackout is the most serious type of power outage. It results in a loss of power to a large area. Most blackouts happen because there is damage to an electrical facility. This can include damage caused by a storm, lightning strike, or structural damage. Blackouts can be very difficult to correct depending on the severity of the damage. An example of a severe blackout occurred in 2003 in the northeastern part of the United States and Canada. During this blackout, millions of people were left without power for several days.

What Is a Brownout?

A brownout happens if there is a dip in the electrical voltage or the electrical power supply. It is called a brownout because instead of producing total loss of light, you may notice lights dimming due to voltage sags. A brownout can lead to poor equipment performance. Certain devices such as hair dryers and those that need large amounts of electricity to function might not operate at all.

What Is a Permanent Fault?

A fault in the power system involves conditions that are not normal and interrupt the current flow. As a result of the fault, large amounts of current travel through the conductors or cables leading to it following an inappropriate path in the circuit.

The electrical power system in Seattle is massive and complex. It is built of transmission lines, generators, and transformers. Because of its complexity along with the environmental conditions that are typical for this region, including heavy rains and winds, there is a high chance of a fault in the power system.

Faults in the power system happen because of physical damage, human error, installation failure, or a flashover. A temporary fault only happens for a short period of time and can usually be corrected without interrupting power distribution. An example of a temporary fault is a lightning strike that does not create permanent damage.

Conversely, a permanent fault can interrupt the operation of the power system. For these faults to be cleared, engineers need to be involved. Most permanent faults result from thermal heating, wind, and sag. Brownouts and blackouts are the results of issues with power generation. A permanent fault is a problem with the supply mechanism. It is usually easier to identify these and fix them.

When Power Outages Are Intentional

In addition to scheduled maintenance, your utility company may intentionally plan power outages. These are called rolling blackouts. They are used in parts of the city with unstable grades or where the infrastructure lacks the ability to handle the population it serves. Rolling blackouts may also exist if there is insufficient fuel to produce power at full capacity. This could be a short-term or a long-term situation. Thankfully, rolling blackouts rarely happen in major cities like Seattle.

When Can You Most Likely Experience a Power Outage?

Power outages happen more frequently during bad weather that includes high winds, freezing rain, or high temperatures. Rolling blackouts and brownouts are common if there’s insufficient power to keep the grid running.

Each year, hundreds of power outages are reported due to electrical failures caused by animals. In some areas, squirrels are responsible for over 30% of power outages.

Power outages happen with greater frequency in regions with high population density. This increases the chances of an accident or human error interrupting the flow of electricity. California, by far, has the most power outages in the United States, Texas is in second place, and New York is third.

Thanks to improving technology, power outages have become less frequent and don’t last long. While there is very little that a homeowner can do to prevent a power outage, there is much that they can do to be prepared in the event one occurs.

If a power outage happens in your area, alerting your electricity provider promptly may be beneficial. Electricity providers in many parts of Seattle have digital systems that automatically identify power outages. However, they still use customer notifications to help them deal with blackouts, brownouts, and other issues with the power supply.

Working With Seattle’s Best Electrical Company

At Brennan Electric, we pride ourselves on supplying unparalleled electrical service to our customers. When you work with us, you can be confident that you will receive top-notch service as our electricians are highly trained, and they have the backing of a reputable company.

In addition to home electrical and generator inspections we install hot tub circuits, upgrade circuits, and provide low-voltage electricity. We offer general electrical maintenance and repair, and we can provide 220 V to 110 V conversion, LED lighting upgrades, and all things residential. Contact Brennan Electric today and see what it is like to work with electricians who treat customers like family.

Brennan Electric icon