It happens suddenly: one minute, everything is humming along — the next, the power is out.
Power outages are dark, boring and sometimes even dangerous. Unfortunately, power outages are also a pretty common occurrence across Northern Virginia and the United States. The five-year annual average of outages has been doubling every five years (meaning the current five-year annual average is four times what it was 15 years ago).
Is your power out right now in Alexandria or Northern Virginia?
Every city and town has its own to-do list when the power goes out. In Alexandria, Va., you can report and check power outages on the Dominion Energy website (keep your phone charged!). You can view a map that shows outages across Virginia as well as a list of outages in Virginia municipalities.
If you have telephone access but no Internet you can reach Dominion Energy by calling 1-866-DOM-HELP to find out more info in the case of a widespread outage.
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Some people are also served by Novec, the Northern Virginia Energy Cooperative. Novec serves 167,000 homes and businesses throughout the Northern Virginia region. The co-op also has an outage page for customers to monitor or use when the lights start going out. Novec can be reached by phone at 1-888-335-0500.
Think local: Alexandria, Va. gets 42 inches of rain each year, slightly above the U.S. average of 39 inches. Alexandria usually sees about 15 inches of snow, well below the national average. That doesn't mean the power never goes out in the Port City. In fact, over 3,000 people in Alexandria and Arlington lost power when a pole broke on Feb. 5, 2017, which is a big deal because it was Super Bowl Sunday. Poor timing for an outage, and a reminder that you can find the power is out at anytime.
Why does the power go out? An aging infrastructure, growing population and more frequent extreme weather are all putting new strains on the electric grid. And with no immediate plans to combat those factors, the numbers most likely won’t start to be on the decline anytime soon.
So what can I do? First of all, do some research beforehand. The Alexandria Fire Department has an emergency management page you should check out. Keep the Alexandria Public Works webpage in your bookmarks. Dominion Energy has a safety section online that you should review.
There are a few more things you should know when the lights go down in Alexandria, or anywhere across the Washington, D.C. metro area.
What causes a power outage?
Power outages can result from a variety of different causes — from overzealous squirrels to natural disasters and everything in between. Some of the biggest culprits include:
Failed electrical equipment
Many factors can make up an electrical system. If one fails, the entire unit will fail. Quite often, electrical equipment can start to wear down from age, performance and other hazardous conditions. Over time, lightning strikes and temporary faults (like a branch contacting a line), can wear the system down -- making it more susceptible to attack and decreasing the amount it can withstand increased energy flow during high demands.
Winter weather conditions
High winds, ice and dense snow are all common winter power interruptions. When ice or snow builds up on power lines, poles or tree limbs, it will cause them to break under the weight and cause an electrical fault. These types of conditions can cause outages to last for several days.
When there is heavy rain or quickly melting snow, certain areas will begin to flood. Not only can flooding cause a temporary failure, but it can cause electrical damage both overhead and underground.
If you’re questioning “why is my power out?” chances are the wind is to blame. Wind -- whether it’s a part of an average storm or a more serious tornado -- has the ability to cause power lines to swing together, knock over trees and even break power lines and utility poles. Whenever this occurs, homeowners will witness extensive damage for several miles.
When lightning strikes, it looks for the quickest path to the ground (which usually means the tallest nearby conductor). Electrical equipment, utility poles and other transformers are usually the easiest targets -- causing severe damage and power loss. Lightning also tends to strike trees and tree limbs, which can also fall onto utility lines and cause an outage.
Sometimes, birds, squirrels and other outdoor critters come into contact with transformers and fuses when they’re looking for a bite to eat or a place to stay. If the power companies don’t properly protect this equipment, it can cause the equipment to fail or even shut down. More often than not, this wildlife is just looking for a place to eat or stay.
Heavily accumulated dust
When areas witness a dry spell, dust can start to build up over time. If this dust combines with light moisture (like a fog or drizzle), it can actually cause the dust to turn into a conductor and result in a spark or equipment fire. When this happens, it’ll cause equipment to fail.
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How to stay safe when the power is out
1. Check the fuse box or breaker panel.
Unsure of the source of your blackout? Check the the fuse box for flipped fuses. Educate yourself about which fuses connect to which circuits in your home. A local electrician can help your identify and label your circuits in advance of an electrical emergency. Clear any clutter around your fuse box to ensure easy access.
Learn more about your fuse box
Pro tip: Store flashlights or head lamps with fresh batteries in an easily accessible location to help you find the fuse box in the dark — you don’t want to mess around in the junk drawer when you can’t see. A weather radio is always a good idea for getting updates during outages, too.
2. Unplug appliances.
Avoid frying your electronics and appliances. Disconnect devices when the electricity goes out. Flip the switches on your power strips to the "Off" position. You don't want to buy a new laptop or flat-screen TV when your power comes back on and fries your device.
Installing surge protectors in advance also helps. Having a portable cell phone charger on hand can help keep you connected to important weather updates — and even entertained — for the duration of a power outage.
Pro tip: Avoid opening your refrigerator or freezer for as long as possible. An unopened fridge can keep groceries cold for four hours, and a freezer can stay cold for two days, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Bonus pro tip — don’t eat anything that smells or looks funky after power is restored.
3. Stay aware of smells.
Notice the smell of gas or smoke when the power is out? Evacuate your home. Don’t forget your pets! Contact your utility company as soon as you can. If you observe a live wire, sparks or flames, maintain a wide berth and report the situation to your Dominion Energy and the Alexandria Police Department or Fire Department.
4. Avoid flammable light and heat sources.
Candles, kerosene lamps or other methods of using fire for light or heat during an outage can post a risk — especially using them in the dark. It may be tempting when the power is out to create a romantic mood with a few flickering flames, but it's dangerous. Never use a charcoal grill or other cooking method that relies on flammable fuel indoors.
5. Contact Dominion Energy (or Novec).
Dominion Energy is the main power provider in Alexandria and across Northern Virginia. Sometimes construction or utility work in the area — or even an ill-fated squirrel — can cause a disruption in service. Let Dominion know if the power is down. If you can access the internet, Dominion also provides an outage map.
Novec provides as outage map and telephone option (1-888-335-0500) for its customers, as well.
Pro-tip: If someone who needs electricity to power medical devices lives in your home, consider installing a standby generator. Contact a qualified electrical repair service that deals with generators for advice on what model makes sense for your home. Never operate a generator indoors.
6. Make alternative arrangements.
Consider finding a temporary refuge if it's safe to be outdoors. Never leave children, the elderly, the infirm or pets in dangerous indoor conditions. Drink plenty of water — more on that below. Organizations like the Red Cross should provide accommodations for people and pets.
Other smart moves during a power outage:
- Be cautious of what you’re consuming. Have a plan for your food when the power is out. If the outage is less than two hours, food in your refrigerator and freezer will be fine. After that, however, temperatures may rise high enough to cause foodborne illness. To minimize the risk, avoid opening and closing the refrigerator as much as possible.
- Use water bottles. Municipal water should remain unaffected when the power is out. However, extreme weather or extended outages could compromise water safety. In cases like this, the experts recommend avoiding using it for anything that could come in contact with your mouth or body. If possible, use boiled or bottled water to avoid the risk of getting sick.
- Stay cool in warm weather. Your risk of heat stroke will increase significantly when the power is out during the hottest times of the year. It’s important to identify the signs of heat stroke (hot/red skin, dizziness or nausea, headaches, rapid heartbeat and a high body temperature) and address it as soon as it happens. To avoid a heat stroke, you should keep well hydrated, wear loose clothes, open windows and take cool showers.
- Stay warm in cold weather. Just like the heat, he cold can quickly create an emergency situation when the power is out. This holds especially true with most in-home heating systems that rely on electricity in some capacity. One of the largest risks with prolonged exposure to cold is hypothermia. To avoid this life-threatening situation, make sure to wear warm clothes (like coats, mittens and lots of layers), keep doors and windows shut and use a kerosene space heater.
- Don’t leave appliances plugged in. In most scenarios, your first thought when the power is out isn’t to check on your electronics. If you do leave your big power users (like televisions, computers and other appliances) plugged in, the electricity could fry them when it comes on and a power surge overloads your house’s circuits.
- Don’t go outside if you can avoid it. You may be tempted to start walking around and checking out your property or the neighborhood when the power is out. Stay inside! Wait until authorized crews come to clean the area. Falling tree branches, fallen power lines and other dangerous debris can create life-threatening situations.
- Don’t try to siphon gasoline. Gasoline can be in short supply when the power is out. When this happens, people may try to move gasoline from one container to another by siphoning (when you use your mouth or a pump to suck a liquid through a funnel or tube and into another container). This is an extremely dangerous task and could lead to serious burns, lung damage or even death.
How to communicate during a power outage
In an age of wireless devices, we often take communication for granted. When the power is out, Alexandria electricians know your resources can be drastically limited. When it comes to communicating during a power outage, keep these tips in mind:
- Contact your neighbors. Naturally, your first thought during this type of event will be “why is my power out?” Sometimes, a power outage will be isolated and only affect a small area. Other times, the damage can spread for miles. If you’re not sure the extent of the power failure, contact your neighbors, landlord or nearby friends and family to see if they’re witnessing it, too.
- Use data-based communication. In the event of a disaster, the FCC and FEMA recommend using texts, emails and social media to communicate during a disaster. Since these are data-based serviced (as opposed to voice networks), users will be less likely to experience congestion.
- Plug in your corded phone. If you do still have a traditional landline, keep a corded phone in your home. Unlike a cordless phone, an old-fashioned phone with a cord will still work even when the power is out.
- Keep an eye on text updates. Many news sources and emergency organizations will send push notifications or text message alerts directly to your phone in the chance of an emergency. If possible, try to minimize how much you’re using your phone so you don’t run out of juice and miss the alert.
Do you have an electrical problem?
If your power is out, it's not always nature's fault. Call John C. Flood when you have electrical issues in Alexandria, Washington, D.C. or Northern Virginia.
We specialize in attic and bath exhaust fans, backup generators, ceiling fans, dedicated circuits and subpanels, fixture replacement, fuse panel replacements, short circuit repairs, smoke detectors, surge suppression and much, much more.
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Originally published on June 8, 2017. Updated on Jan. 31, 2018.