My Power Went Out

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Jan 01, 2011 | Philip Schmidt
power outage

When all suddenly goes dark and quiet in the house, who's the first person you call? The hotline operator at the power company? An electrician? Your son-in-law? Your psychic? While any of these folks may be helpful, or even spiritually reassuring, the best option depends on the situation at hand. Obviously, if it's raining sideways outside and shingles are flying off your neighbors' roofs, you can guess at the cause of the outage, and chances are your entire neighborhood is in the same boat. But when an outage occurs at your house alone or with no apparent reason, the power company may or may not get involved. A quick assessment of the situation will help you determine whom to call first.

What Causes Outages
It's easy to tell when Mother Nature has a hand in shutting off your power, whether it's manifest as a two-inch-thick glazing of ice on everything in sight or a two-week heat wave in mid-July. Less obvious causes can range from emergency grid maintenance to construction-site mishaps to a truck crashing into a power pole. Whether you can identify the source or not, the bottom line is: if your neighbors' power is out, too, it's probably something the power company will take care of. But if they have power and you don't, a whole new set of questions and potential causes comes into play.

When to Call the Power Company
The fact is, you can always call your electricity provider whenever your power goes out. They're amply staffed for answering customer calls, and while their system detects widespread outages, it can't hurt to add your house to their list of areas to check out. You can also call as a first step in investigating a mysterious outage. Power companies know when a block of homes has lost power, but they can't tell when an individual home has gone off-grid. If there's no detectable outage in your area, they'll probably suggest a few things to try before calling them back (if the problem persists.

NOTE: Always call the power company if you see a downed line. This can present a deadly hazard to anyone in the area, and the power company will likely send out a special response team to assess the situation and secure the area. For the same reason, never report an ordinary power outage as a "downed line" if there's no evidence of damage to the power lines or other equipment.

Where the Power Lines are Drawn
In most areas, the utility company is in charge of, and responsible for, the main power lines (running between poles or underground) and the cables between the main lines and your house, also called the service drop. Responsibility shifts to the homeowner at or near the point where the service drop cables attach to the house. If there's nothing wrong with the lines leading up to the house, the utility folks ultimately will advise you to call an electrician.

When to Call an Electrician
If the power to the whole house goes out and you can't determine a likely source (and you've confirmed the neighbors still have power), there's one thing you can try before calling a pro: Walk through the house and turn off light switches and other power users that you don't need right away. You don't have to get everything; it's just to prevent having loads of devices turn on at once, which could trip some breakers. Open the service panel (breaker box) door and locate the main breaker; it's usually at the top center of the breaker panel and looks just like a big version of the regular breakers. Flip the main breaker toggle to OFF. Wait 30 seconds or so, then flip the main breaker back to ON.

SAFETY WARNING: Don't go near the service panel in wet conditions or if anything seems amiss (burning odor, sparking, etc.). Don't remove the inner panel covering the wiring inside the breaker box, and don't touch anything behind the panel door other than the plastic toggle of the main breaker switch. If you have an older panel with fuses, don't turn off the power unless you know how to do it safely.

If turning the main breaker off and on doesn't restore power to the house, call the power company; they'll likely tell you to call an electrician. Do the same if the power comes back on for awhile but then goes back off—don't reset the main breaker again. The main breaker allows you (or preferably a pro) to cut power to the house for emergencies or repairs, but it also protects your home's system from excessive power coming into the panel, which trips the main breaker. If the breaker trips more than once, the problem still exists, and leaving the breaker off is the best way to ensure your safety.

Partial Power Outages
You've probably had a breaker trip from time to time, shutting off power to lights, wall outlets or small appliances in a localized area of the house. This is merely the circuit being shut down by its breaker, usually due to a temporary overload. A partial outage is different. This is when more than one area or major appliance loses power at the same time. The service drop to most modern homes contains three cables, two of which provide power. If one of those cables has a problem, you can lose power to several circuits without the breakers in the panel tripping. In this case, call the power company first.

Updated December 11, 2017.

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