Power Failures: Advice For Customers

August 5, 2005
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Storm damage, both in human injuries and equipment damage, can disrupt business and personal lives to the extent that recovery can take days, weeks, months, or even years.

In some cases, recovery never occurs. Sadly, much of the damage is preventable by simple safety measures, yet some people are caught off guard and can't properly react in time.

For example, one of the most common injuries after a power outage occurs when a person comes in contact with a downed electric wire. The contact can be incidental, such as when a tool or vehicle accidentally touches the wires. The result can be a severe injury or fatality.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that lightning strikes kill more people each year than tornadoes or hurricanes. During a lightning strike, common equipment damages occur when there is a power surge that can burn out electrical equipment. Computers are typical victims of power surges.

An average computer is assaulted by more than 120 power problems each month. Power problems can cause keyboard lockups, system crashes, corrupted programs and data, damage to the hard drive, loss of the hard drives' FAT (File Allocation Table), lost work stored in RAM and cache, even the total loss of computer hardware.

HVAC equipment is not immune to damage from storms, either. That's why The News asked members of its Contractor Consultant panel to suggest ways contractors can help customers by establishing a checklist of do's and don'ts prior to, during, and after power outages.

The Impending Storm

While some people like the adventure of witnessing a storm firsthand, it is foolish to believe that there is a safe place to view a tornado or thunderstorm.

HVAC contractors likely have procedures to follow in the event of an impending storm - home and business owners need to understand and adhere to similar precautions.

Suggestions for what to do before a storm hits are things that any homeowner should do anyway to protect the lives of people in the house. For example, all family or guests should be accounted for and positioned in a safe area. Anyone having medical or health issues may require transport to an emergency room, which should have backup power. The phone number and address of the nearest medical facility should be easily accessible.

If someone living at home cannot be easily or safely transported, then the homeowner should consider installing a small backup power supply to take care of their needs during a power outage.

Other tips:

  • Make sure you have operable flashlights. Make sure there is a supply of fresh batteries and keep them in the refrigerator so they will last longer.

  • Make sure a cell phone is operating at all times.

    Larry Taylor of the Air Rite Air Conditioning Co. gave examples of what to do before different types of storms.

    "If a tornado is coming, don't worry about the power," he said. "Get to a safe shelter. If your home is still standing after the storm passes - then you can worry about the power.

    "If it is a thunderstorm and high winds, stay inside and seek shelter. Stay away from glass windows, doors, and other items that might break and blow out causing harm. And if it is an ice storm, just put another log on the fire and wait 24 hours until it is gone.

    "Always remember: material items can always be replaced or repaired, but human lives are not worth the risk. Think safety first."

    During a power failure, it is recommended that homeowners call the power company to find out how long the outage might last.

    During The Storm

    Lightning does not have to strike a building to do serious damage. A strike to a power line or transformer may occur miles away and be transmitted by the power lines causing severe damage. So how can someone protect his or her equipment?

    Aaron York, of Aaron York's Quality A/C, talked about the path taken by electrical current during a lightning strike. "Power surges caused by lightning will follow the path of least resistance, thus destroying the heaviest load, which is the air conditioner if it is running," he said. "If it is not running, other devices in the home might be damaged.

    "The best protection during a thunderstorm is to turn off the air conditioner (this can be done at the thermostat) and other valuable electrical apparatus such as televisions, computer, etc., until the storm has passed."

    York suggests that homeowners purchase a lightning surge protector from an HVAC contractor. One model available to contractors through Johnstone Supply is made by SUPCO and can handle a maximum surge current of 100,000 amps.

    Vince DiFillippo, of DiFillippo's Service Co., has three simple cautions for homeowners to heed during storms. "First, the homeowner should call their local utility company. Everyone else is assuming someone else will call them," he said. "Secondly, if in summer, turn off the A/C to protect it in case the power flickers on and off. Third, if in winter, turn off your heat system to protect it for the same reason."

    Taylor suggested calling the power company, if possible, to determine what, where, and how long the power outage might last. He said, "Keep the refrigerator, freezer, etc. closed to maintain what cooling is inside to protect food, etc. from spoilage. Draw some water into some containers if possible, and if not, conserve water.

    "Thermostats should be turned to the off position. When power is restored homeowners don't want them to short cycle if the power is not stable - it may cause damage to the units."

    After The Storm

    Just because a storm has passed and everything appears to be OK is no reason for home and business owners to get the all-clear signal to return everything to pre-storm operation. There are some additional precautions to follow after power has been restored.

    Dave Dombrowski, of Metro Services/ARS-Rescue Rooter, believes homeowners should not "play with fire" when dealing with electricity. So they should look to the basics first.

    "The main thing that people need to do after a storm is to check for physical damage," he said. "Branches block fans, coils have trees fall on them, etc. Also, watch for flooding into crawl spaces and ducts getting wet. I am just concerned about homeowners doing anything with electricity."

    York added that each electrical appliance should be turned on and off to ensure it is operating correctly after power has been restored.

    Taylor said that is the wise thing to do, as long as building owners don't try to turn everything on at once. "Once the power is back on, do not try to start all items, equipment, etc., at one time," he suggested. "Bring it back on in stages every five minutes or so. And do a visual check of the property to ensure no wiring is unsafe, broken, or that other damage requires attention."

    DiFillippo also adheres to the "stages" theory, adding, "Be sure power is on steady for at least a half-hour. This will help protect equipment from low voltage, sporadic power, and voltage spikes.

    "After that, turn the system back on and wait five minutes. Check to be sure it is operating. If not, check fuses/circuit breakers, and check the thermostat for the proper setting to make the heat or A/C comes back on. If there is still no operation, advise customers that they should call you."

    Dombrowski added that there really isn't a lot that a typical homeowner can do for equipment that is directly affected by a power loss. Most equipment has safety features built into the unit to protect it from surges, he said.

    "In addition, we do not want homeowners flipping breakers in inclement weather," he noted.

    While protecting humans and equipment during and after a storm should be a no-brainer, and something that DiFillippo said most of his clients know anyway, there may also be marketing opportunities for contractors who want to get an edge on their competition.

    "In my opinion a sticker with such [safety] information on it, along with the name and phone number of an HVAC contractor, might be a good marketing tool to build business," said York.

    Publication date: 08/08/2005

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