Who Should I Call When the Power Goes Out?

Published on 04/12/2021

This winter, the United States experienced wide-ranging power outages due to winter storm Uri — outages (check out our blog about Uri here) that ranged from complete blackouts to rolling blackouts in various areas of the country.

Because the delivery of electricity is so complex, with many steps in between the generation of the power and its delivery to your home or business, failures can happen at any point in the process — and for a number of reasons.

Of course, most peoples’ initial reaction to a power outage is typically “Who should I call?” But before we answer that important question, let’s take a closer look at the reasons your power may be out, since that may determine who you should contact for information about restoration of power and your personal safety.

Types of Power Outages
We have already mentioned that supplying electricity to homes, businesses, and other infrastructure takes more than one step. In the beginning of the process, power plants generate the electrical current. Then, the electricity is transmitted over distances by transmission lines. Finally, the electricity is delivered to end users through the distribution network. Failures can occur at any point in the process, so that’s where we will start:

1. Supply Shortage Failures

The rarest of all the outages, supply shortage failures occur when the amount of electricity generated can’t keep up with the demand. These shortages typically happen during summer heatwaves and this winter it occurred in places like Texas, where several impacts to the grid resulted in rolling blackouts for much of the state.

However, there is some evidence that these may be on the rise as utilities are increasingly ill-prepared for climatic change events and rising consumer demands for power. In fact, a study by Climate Central showed that outages were ten times more common in 2012 as they were in the 1980s.

2. Failures During Transmission

Typically, transmission failures can be caused by adverse weather events such as windstorms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms, and others. However, they can sometimes occur when tree limbs crack and pull down lines, as well as due to human error, equipment failure, and issues with technology.

Another reason for failures during power transmission can be aging power lines. In the United States, the average age of a power line is 40 years. During that time, the line has been exposed to much stress in the form of weather and environmental factors, causing stress and weakness.

The recent shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies such as solar and wind have also caused issues in the form of voltage fluctuations that can contribute to outages.

3. Distribution Failures

One of the most common types of outages, distribution failures normally only affect a localized area, but they can affect entire towns. Again, this can happen when a tree branch impacts a power line, an automobile hitting a power pole, or any number of reasons. 

B. Don Russell, an electrical engineer at Texas A&M University notes that for electric utilities, the single biggest cost remains tree maintenance. Many outages are caused by vegetation impacting power lines — in fact damage from trees is the second most common power outage cause.

Some analysts speculate that up to 44% of trees that have caused power outages can be categorized as hazard trees.

4. Planned Outages

Sometimes officials need to shut down parts of the grid in order to perform routine maintenance. While redundancy is normally available to avoid shutdowns in this case, sometimes a weather event such as one with low humidity and high winds can cause transmission or distribution lines to spark fires, so utilities practice preemptive shutdowns.

Who Should I Call If My Power Goes Out?
Anyone that has experienced a loss of power understands how important it is to get service restored as soon as possible.

Power outages, even rolling ones, can result in communication disruption; the inability to get potable water; food spoilage; and the shutdown of critical businesses such as banks, gas stations, and grocery stores.

The first thing to do when you experience an outage is make sure that your outage isn’t caused by issues not related to your power services, such as unpaid electricity bills. If your payments are up to date and your home is the only one without power, there are other issues internal to your house that can be causing the problem.

Before making any phone calls, make sure your power outage is not caused by:

Tripped fuses — Fuses have a safety feature that will cut your power if an anomaly is detected. Check your fuses at the box and simply flip the tripped switches back on to see if that returns power to your home.

Faulty circuit breakers — If you keep having problems with fuses tripping and power cutting off to your entire home it could point to an issue with your circuit breaker. You should call an electrician to check for this problem.

Overloaded power strips — Many homeowners use power strips to provide extra outlets for appliances. When strung together or used with too many devices, these strips can become overloaded and trip, causing your power to go out. To fix this, unplug any devices that are not in use and minimize the number of power strips altogether.

Making the Call
If none of those is the source of your issue, call your power company to make sure they are aware of the break in service. Typically, utilities provide a number with an automated response to allow you to leave your number or address to report the outage. This number can typically be found on your utility bill.

A utility website can be valuable to let you know where outages are located and an estimated time that the power will be back online. Some utilities even provide repair status via SMS.

For those living in communities that get power through a co-op, or municipal or city utility, you will still find contact information on your monthly bill that you can use to report your outage.

The only exception to this rule is if you see a downed transmission line. Downed lines can be hazardous, and you should call 911 immediately.

After you contact first responders, move away from the line immediately, using a shuffling walk and keeping your feet together and on the ground. If a power line touches your car, stay inside, roll down your window, and sound your horn for help.

Once first responders are at the scene, you can contact your utility to report the hazard, although it is likely that emergency personnel will have already taken care of this.