Basic Power Quality
Power outages are rare and short here, but grid-provided electricity isn’t completely consistent and reliable under all circumstances. Here’s a quick guide to the world of power quality problems, and actions individuals and businesses can take to minimize the effects of power quality issues.
Transient power quality issues that don’t result in outages include voltage variations (sags, swells, and spikes), poor current frequency, and problems with power factor. (Power factor is technically complex and is usually only relevant to businesses that use many electrical motors.) These problems only last for milliseconds to minutes. Most of the time, individuals and businesses won’t even notice them. Sometimes, fuses will blow, circuit breakers will trip, and, under some circumstances, sensitive equipment can be damaged.
If you happen to be in a situation in which better management of transient power issues is desirable – for instance, if you’re concerned about your electronics – you can install some equipment, on your side of the fuse or breaker panel, to protect your equipment.
Sensitive electronics can be protected from unexpected high voltage by plugging them into the wall via a surge-suppressing power strip. These strips do need to be replaced every few years, so read their specifications and put a label on them reminding you to replace them to maintain surge suppression protection.
If equipment might be damaged, or might cause damage, by suddenly shutting down, or by going on and off due to transient voltage variations, it can be protected by plugging it in via a backup battery that will keep the equipment on and allow you to shut it down in an orderly manner. Equipment that might be relevant includes computers, and industrial machinery like plastic film extruders, which can require hours to clean up and restart after even the briefest power interruption.
Outages that last more than a few minutes can be caused by physical damage to the grid due to, e.g., squirrels or cars. They can also be caused by occasional grid management issues, which typically occur during extreme weather when demand is high for prolonged periods. Outages are usually resolved within 2 to 4 hours, but can (very rarely) last for a few days.
Outages of a few minutes or hours can be mitigated by using backup batteries on particularly sensitive or important equipment. Often, a retail electric customer with backup batteries on a few lamps, a television, a computer and an internet connection will feel unaffected by most outages.
Outages long enough to affect refrigerated food, or to substantially reduce comfort because the heating and cooling systems are off, can be addressed with whole-building backup power. On-site generators and storage systems, whether based on solar panels or fueled generators, can extend the time homes and businesses can be without power to several days.
People in remote locations, or near the end of the power grid, may want to investigate backup generators, whole-house batteries or electric vehicle-to-grid systems. These systems are most relevant to people who store large amounts of food in refrigerators and freezers, and/or to businesses like convenience stores, which need to protect their food investment and simultaneously maintain an ability to remain open. Nationwide, and ironically, gas stations often can’t pump gas during outages even though they have fuel, because they don’t have a backup generator to power their pumps.
Copyright 2023], La Conner Weekly News. Reprinted with permission