Blackouts are caused by an overworked electric grid
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Compounding effects

Why Does A Heat Wave Cause A Blackout

Steve Hansen
August 12, 2023

Extreme heat waves are becoming more common, longer in duration, and more intense, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.That’s challenging for humans who work outside in Phoenix and other overheated cities, but it’s also a challenge for millions of people with health issues and some elderly folks who just need to be at home most of the time.

When the temperature climbs, we naturally start to consume more and more electricity, especially for powering our air conditioners. And unlike the many different ways of heating your home, air conditioners all need to be plugged into a wall outlet and use electricity. (With one portable exception that I found. More on that later.) In urban areas, air conditioners exhaust heat outside, adding to the heat island effect (where a concentration of man-made surfaces absorb and retain more heat than more rural and natural areas), which can increase air temps up to 10 degrees or more.

So the root cause of a blackout is essentially just high demand on electricity, but the increased heat causes a strain on the power lines themselves, as well. In fact, with higher temperatures, overhead power lines will expand and sag. That sagging can cause them to come into contact with trees below, which has sparked some fires around the country.

Preventing those fires is one of the reasons for rolling blackouts, which occur when power companies cut electric power to certain areas for a time. Another reason for rolling blackouts is simply to lessen the strain on the grid for a time. If you’re in an area subject to a rolling blackout, you’ll typically be notified ahead of time so you can prepare for temporarily losing your electricity.

What About Brownouts?

Similar to blackouts, brownouts happen when the electric grid faces greater demand than the electric company can supply at that time. Brownouts are unplanned drops in voltage that you notice in your home as lights dimming, for example. Some of your home’s devices are more sensitive to voltage drops than others. Computers tend to be especially sensitive. Appliances with electric motors, also, are susceptible to damage from lower than normal voltage, and also when the voltage surges back to normal or slightly above normal. Your refrigerator, washing machine, and clothes dryer all have electric motors, making them susceptible to damage when the power comes back on. Experts recommend that you unplug them, and your electronic devices, if possible, during brownouts and blackouts. Installing a whole-house surge protector can also help minimize damage.

Our Electric Grid Is Vulnerable

All this information points to an unfortunate conclusion: our electric grid is in need of some major help right now, not to mention for the coming decades. This article provides a good overview of where it all stands now, and there’s a lot of work to be done. But the Inflation Reduction Act is providing billions of dollars for many different types of improvement projects, such as upgrading transmission lines and power plants, as well as expanding the use of wind and solar energy.

In addition to all that, we’re seeing a movement to electrify everything and move all transportation, home heating, and cooking away from fossil fuels. The Inflation Reduction Act provides incentives for these home upgrades too, just as it does for your solar system, your new heat pump, and your new electric vehicle. With these products becoming more popular, we’re going to need more electric power, and more reliable electric power.

What Can You Do?

Being proactive in this case means getting a backup power supply. You’ll see several options we covered in that article, from fossil-fuel generators to large, permanently connected battery systems. If you rent an apartment, or live in a multi-family building, you can’t realistically install a big generator. But you still have an option: a portable battery backup system.

Depending on the size of the system you buy, you can keep the lights on, some fans running, and quite a bit more. Your refrigerator uses a lot of power, so to run that for a while, you’ll need a larger battery system like this one. The company’s product information says it will run a typical refrigerator for 14 hours but an air conditioner for only one hour. You could keep your laptop going for many hours, and charge your phone 175 times. Considering that a blackout could last for just an hour to several days, a battery backup would provide peace of mind, as well as great functionality.

A battery-powered air conditioner

As I mentioned earlier, I did find one battery-powered air conditioner that might work well during a blackout. The Wave 2 is made by one of the leading manufacturers of solar generators, EcoFlow. It’s designed to be small and lightweight enough to take on camping trips and fit in your tent. You just keep it charged and ready for use, and when a blackout hits, you can set the Wave 2 up in a couple minutes.

At $1299, it’s not cheap, but if you live in a place that’s facing frequent outages due to unbearably high temperatures, it might be worth having, especially if you also go camping in hot weather. You can buy an extra battery to extend the run time for this unit, but in Eco mode it will run for eight hours. I can see how an air conditioner like this could really take the edge off in sweltering heat, allowing you to at least get some sleep in a closed bedroom

Stay cool without electricity

Another action step you can take is covering your windows, especially those on the south and west sides of your home. The best solution would be permanent awnings that block the sun but not the breeze. If that’s not an option for you, the next best option is to keep the blinds or drapes closed wherever the sun is shining on the windows.

Maintaining maximum ventilation is also crucial, and granted, that can be challenging when you’re also keeping your window coverings down to block the sun. Battery-powered and rechargeable fans are also practically a necessity as part of your emergency blackout kit. This unit is one of many that uses the same removable batteries that your power tools use. You can also find fans designed for camping use that also include a light and even a mister.

In fact, many of these helpful devices are targeted for the camping market, but they’re useful enough to provide great help in emergency situations. Refrigerators are another example. This model is a 12V unit, so you could keep it charged with your portable power station, or while you’re driving to work.

No doubt blackouts and brownouts will continue to plague us until our electric grid receives some major upgrades. During an extended outage, however, you might find yourself doing just fine with a thoughtful collection of gear and some basic adaptive techniques at home.

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