Power Surges and Drops – Causing Electrical Problems?


Electricity pylon - power outage
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I don’t know if you have noticed it too, but there seems to be a lot more power outages and surges these days.  I’m not talking about the 20 day variety like the one that hit us during the ice storm, but rather the one and two second ones that seem to come in bunches every few months. 

Hydro has a fund to deal with hits to electronic equipment that is damaged due to surges like the one we had in Kanata when a 17 kV line dropped on a 10 kV line early in the last decade and fried a bunch of computers.  Fair enough as far as it goes, but what about the things that didn’t burn up?  What about the fridge that was supposed to last for 15 years, but ends up only lasting 10 years because it was hit by a large surge?  What about the dozens of light bulbs that were supposed to last for 10,000 hours and end up only lasting half that because they experienced a big surge?  Sure, they didn’t die when the surge hit, and there is no way to prove that their life span was decreased due to the surge, but doesn’t it make sence that it would be?  Where is the compensation for these items?

OK you say, but that is history…old news…almost 10 years old now!  What about today?  Well, of course, you’re right.  There aren’t a bunch of surges like the one I spoke of happening from day-to-day, but there are a whole bunch of little black-outs where the power drops for a few seconds and then surges back on.  Aside from the inconvenience of having to re-set every clock in the house, have you never noticed anything funny with your electrical devices after such an outage?  I have, and I am not speaking about problems with your computers because, like me, most of you will have shelled out hundreds of dollars to buy surge suppressing power bars or uninterruptible power sources (UPSs) for your high-end computer gear.  No, once again, I am speaking about your equally expensive fridges, stoves, and even furnaces, each of which is now controlled by computer. 

Every time there is a power outage in my house, the ice maker on my high-end fridge stops working.  I have to cycle off the power on the fridge at the circuit breaker, leaving it off for at least a minute (so that any capacitors in the system drain) and then cycle it back on.  Only then will the unit come back to life.

Or how about your heat recovery ventilator unit (HRV)?  An HRV is critical to the healthy functioning of an R2000 or an energy star home as it keeps the humidity level in the house within reasonable limits).  At my house, the same thing happens to my HRV when there is a power outage too.  Once again, I have to cycle off the unit, wait, and then cycle it back on again. 

To me, it is only reasonable to assume that these expensive devices “feel” these small power outages and surges.  Doesn’t it make sense to you too?  Well, if they “feel” the pain of the outage/surge combination, doesn’t it seem likely that they experience a shortening of their useful life when it happens?  Where is the compensation for this loss of useful life for these expensive products? 

The question in my mind is, if Hydro cannot provide more reliable power, shouldn’t they have to come up with some sort of mandatory standards for a new power distribution panel that includes surge suppression as well as some limited UPS (uninterruptible power source) capacity?  And shouldn’t they subsidize the purchase and installation of these devices until the volume of sales drives down the cost to a reasonable amount, or until their service provision becomes more reliable? 

I know that Hydro is bleeding red ink in a number of areas, like the need to replace dirty coal, the need to pay for expensive cogeneration, and the need to retire old debt, but in my opinion, these are symptoms of a poorly constructed business model.  What they need, is to engineer resilience into their business model.  I don’t want to have to replace everything in my home every time they fail to provide clean power to my home and I don’t want to have to pay through the nose to buy products to mitigate the risks associated with these instances. 

Law suits are not the way to go…they are too expensive and the only ones that profit from them are the lawyers on both sides.  Further, they are not the Canadian way.  Rather, Hydro needs to just step up to the plate and consider the needs of their clients and get together with the various standards councils and come up with a strategy for making homes more resilient to the surges and outages until they can fix up their network so that it becomes more resilient.  While they are at it, they might want to consider having each distribution panel set up for net metering (so that people can start feeding the grid using solar voltaic or wind energy generated around the home) and even consider having the panel set up to allow external generators to be plugged in (such as gas-powered generators that could be used during a long power interruption).  This would allow for better engineered homes that were resilient to power fluctuations, that allow for cogeneration projects and that do all this safely with consideration for folks that have to work on the lines when there is an electrical problem in the neighbourhood.

In short, we need Hydro to take back the playing field and start planning for the future.  A bright future if they play their cards right.

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One thought on “Power Surges and Drops – Causing Electrical Problems?”

  1. As a post script to this entry, earlier this summer we had a week where the power was up and down a half a dozen times. Then about 2 weeks later both my furnace and my solar hot water systems had their “mother boards” fail. The cost of repairing the furnace was over $500 and the cost of replacing the mother board on my solar collector was nearly $500. I cannot prove causality, but it sure was suspicious timing.

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