Think a summer heat wave is tough? Your electrical power company is also feeling the burn, due to increased demand for power to run air conditioners, fans and refrigerators/freezers, not to mention the extra television hours people log while escaping the heat. The result of this is that power companies frequently throttle power allowances in order to continue service – a common occurrence that can endanger the lives of some appliances. Protecting your appliances becomes very important as the mercury rises.
Blame Nikola Tesla for lowering voltage
Gizmodo explains that centralized electricity production is a by-product of the genius of scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla. While Thomas Edison was pushing for a power infrastructure based on direct current, Tesla and others believed that alternating current – which could travel much more efficiently along electrical wires – would make it unnecessary to have to produce power on the small, local scale. Utilities would then have the option of using centralized plants to serve larger areas.
Tesla’s model became the norm, which created the following conundrum. Imagine electrical power flowing through wires like water through a pipeline. Voltage would be like water pressure, and amps would be akin to water flow rate. Watts would indicate the total amount of power (volts multiplied by amps) that travels through the wires. Greater wattage puts strain on fixtures, so power companies will lower voltage while keeping amps the same. This reduces wattage, and homes receive about 5 percent less electricity.
‘Most people won’t notice’
Michael Clendenin of New York’s Consolidated Edison told Gizmodo that such a reduction will go unnoticed by “most people.” However, if the need to cut back increased, a “brownout” can occur, at about the 8 percent reduction level. Then things get tougher for your appliances.
“You might start to notice dimming lights, and air conditioners not working right… You don’t have an outage, but your equipment isn’t running as well,” said Clendenin.
Overloaded electric wires lose some power in the form of heat. Sunlight tends to make overhead wires even hotter, although even underground wires can become so hot that they literally bake inside their conduits. To avoid the waste heat, power companies drop voltage in order to avoid serious outages. Considering that the United States’ electrical infrastructure is old – dating back to at least the 1960s in most places – overloaded lines tend to lead to blackouts. Protecting your appliances becomes increasingly important.
What can your appliances tolerate?
In most cases, an 8 percent drop in power during a brownout isn’t a huge problem, as most appliances in North America are designed to work between 110 and 120 volts. According to Brian Markwalter of the Consumer Electronics Association, even a 10 percent drop is tolerable. But if intense heat waves cause voltage to drop under 105 volts, however, motors and compressors refrigerators and air conditioners can take damage. Thus, during a blackout scenario, you’ll want to turn appliances off and even unplug them to avoid expensive mechanical damage. Protecting your appliances in this way can save you a great deal of time and money.