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May 27, 2022

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Energy Adviser: What happens when the lights go out

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Even the most carefully maintained electric systems can experience outages, especially during extreme weather. As we settle into winter and prepare for potential snow, ice and wind storms this season, it’s important to understand what happens at Clark Public Utilities when the lights go out, and how customers can help.

During storms, snow and ice can weigh down tree branches that would otherwise be clear of power lines, and high winds can cause limbs or trees to fall and damage poles and wires. Weather-related outage events can be challenging when there can be dozens of small, separate outages scattered across the county, which covers more than 650 square miles. If a tree brings down a feeder line, that can knock out power to more than a thousand homes and businesses, but only requires one repair. The same type of repair might be needed in a neighborhood for a separate down line affecting one side of one street or a handful of homes.

When damage is widespread, the utility gets to work starting first with any issues posing immediate danger, like a live wire that’s sparking or a fire on a pole. In these cases, it’s usually a serviceman who is first on site. Servicemen are the utility’s first responders, experienced line workers who travel in a bucket truck and can either make a small repair or, in the case of a dangerous situation, can disconnect the power and secure the scene so it’s safe to wait until a crew arrives.

Servicemen are also the on-the-ground detectives and often arrive to first figure out what could be causing the outage. Is it a branch resting on a wire that just needs to be removed before the wire can be reenergized? Does a skilled arborist need to clear a large tree? Or is there a line down or a broken pole that will require heavier line equipment and a full line crew? The serviceman communicates with dispatchers to make sure the right type of crew is on the way.

When all immediate danger has been safely secured, work is prioritized based on repairs that will restore power to the largest number of customers first. Damage at the substation level can affect several thousands of customers and will be addressed first along with transmission and distribution lines that carry high voltage power longer distances. Next the line crews clear feeder lines. There are usually four feeders per substation and each deliver power to about a thousand customers. From the feeders, smaller power lines move the electricity into neighborhoods. If there is a power line down in a neighborhood, but there’s another issue on the feeder, between the home and the substation, the feeder has to be repaired first or the power still can’t get to the final destination. That’s why it can take longer to see a utility truck roll down your street in a storm situation.

Customers experiencing an outage can help by making sure to report the outage, and to check back periodically by calling the automated phone reporting line at 360-992-8000 or by using the online tool at ClarkPublicUtilities.com for updates. When a substation or feeder loses power, the system will usually alert dispatchers automatically. But for smaller issues inside neighborhoods, your reports make all the difference in knowing which homes have been restored and who may still be waiting for repairs. It’s also useful to turn on a porch light so crews can see which homes have power and which ones are still waiting on restoration.

For more information on how to prepare for outages, reporting outages or how restoration is prioritized, visit ClarkPublicUtilities.com.


Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.

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