There are several kinds of voltage fluctuations that can affect homeowners: blackouts, brownouts, and power sags. Blackouts are actually pretty rare and usually take place during hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. Brownouts, temporary decreases of electrical power, are more common. They can result from a problem in your home’s electrical system or from an area-wide power decrease caused by an electric company’s decision to cut back on power to protect an over-stressed grid.
If you live in a warm region where summer heat reaches uncomfortable levels, you’ve probably experienced intentional brownouts by electric companies on blistering summer days when everyone in town is running their air conditioning units at full capacity. This tends to stress the grid and electric companies often have no choice but to impose a brownout, or temporary decrease of voltage delivery, in order to preserve the integrity of the power grid.
Many electrical components and motors can suffer permanent damage or even overheat and start a fire if they don’t get enough electricity during operation. Things like motors and certain components can overheat when voltages get too low. That’s why brownouts are often much more dangerous than blackouts.
Sometimes your home electrical system can cause a brownout all on its own. This can happen when you have faulty wiring, are overloading circuits, or use electrical equipment incorrectly. These “internal brownouts” are common and can lead to permanent damage to home electrical systems and devices.
Sometimes, when an electrical grid is overloaded (as with the summer air conditioning example above) and needs to be temporarily eased, electric companies will purposely cause voltage drops to all buildings and users within a system or specific geographic region.
These temporary brownouts are sometimes announced in time for commercial and residential customers to take precautions and prevent damage to systems and appliances. Low voltage, whether intended or unintended, is a danger for things like motors, heating/cooling units, furnaces, and many other items commonly found in homes and businesses. Computers are also sensitive to brownouts and power surges.
Most homeowners are familiar with ways of protecting their computers and other appliances from power surges, temporary spikes in electrical power that often occur during storms and other weather-related events. Things like power strips, whole-house surge protectors, or meter-mounted protectors are quite common in residences all over the nation. Circuit breakers and surge protectors protect against too much voltage, but what about those times when your system suffers from voltage that’s too low, as in a brownout?
It’s important to know how to protect your home from brownouts. Even if you have a prepaid electricity program, you’ll still need to be aware of the following methods because brownouts can strike unexpectedly and do some pretty serious damage. There are two basic methods for protecting your appliances during a brownout:
Under-voltage relay: Used primarily for sensitive devices like computers, these relays can be costly for a typical homeowner but they get the job done by sensing voltage drops and then automatically disconnecting your sensitive devices. Brownouts, announced or unannounced, will not be able to cause damage to anything connected to an under-voltage relay.
Uninterruptible power supply (UPS): You’ve probably seen UPSs hooked up to computers at your office. You can buy them for your home as well and protect any device from a brownout. The way they work is by maintaining an even flow of electricity, and voltage, to a device when the electrical grid fails to deliver enough power or delivers too much. Thus, UPSs work for both power surges and for brownouts. They contain internal batteries that click on whenever your regular source of power delivers too much or too little voltage. Not only do they offer surge and brownout protection but they have the added capability of protecting important computer files from being deleted or lost during a brownout or surge.
If you don’t want to pay for UPSs or under-voltage relays, it’s possible to monitor your own home and prevent damage from brownouts. Simply unplug every device when not in use or when you fear that a brownout may be ready to take place. You can even buy power strips with on-off switches that let you “unplug” lots of appliances and devices simultaneously. Of course, power strips won’t be able to offer complete protection because some brownouts are unannounced or you might forget to click the strip’s switch to the “off” position before the low voltage or power surge takes place.
What’s the difference between blackouts and brownouts?
In a blackout, there is no electricity at all. In a brownout, the amount of electricity delivered to commercial and residential customers is lower than normal, but not completely shut down.
Energy sags are not dangerous and are, in fact, quite common in homes and offices. When one or more appliances are turned on or engaged at the same time, lights might dim for a few seconds or there could even be a “flickering” of light bulbs due to a very temporary electrical shortage. Homeowners typically notice sags when they turn on air conditioners and central heating units. Sags nearly always last for just a second or two and do no short-term or long-term damage to electrical appliances, equipment, or devices.
It’s always a good idea to phone your local electrical utility and ask them for advice about how best to protect your home from surges, blackouts, and possible blackouts. Utility experts can give you some valuable tips about what to watch out for, what kinds of devices work best in your part of the country during different seasons, and how to install those devices.
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