In the last two weeks, two of the largest hurricanes in recent decades, Harvey and Irma have made landfall in Texas and Florida, respectively. Sadly, while the loss of life is incalculable, the initial estimated damage to property is in the billions of dollars. Hurricanes and electricity are a dangerous and immeasurably expensive combination. As of this writing, over 13 million residents are without power, which could take weeks, or even months, to repair.
While an act of God may not be diverted or avoided completely, we can smartly take steps to avoid unnecessary damage to property or our health.
The Hurricane Basics
Indeed, hurricanes, flooding and electricity are a dangerous combination. You face a real possibility of electrocution, so let’s reduce the chances of getting hurt as much as possible.
High winds and flying debris can damage power poles and overhead power lines, leaving live high-voltage conductors lying on the ground. With extended rain, natural waterway overflows and even rising ocean water will only add to the possible dangers with broken power lines.
Turn Off All Power
There isn’t much you can do about the utility power lines. When it comes to power in the home you can shut off all the electricity at the main circuit breaker. If you are unfamiliar with where this is, look for the round glass electrical meter outside, and your main circuit breaker is (usually) below or near it. It may be under a metal cover or door and will look like two breakers tied together. Look for a “40” or “60” on the handle if you live in an apartment or maybe a “100” or “200” if you live in a home.
Yes, this includes your refrigerator. If you are concerned about food spoiling, there isn’t much to do if there is a blackout. Temperature loss can be minimized if you keep the door closed as much as possible, stack it with ice, or use the freezer for prolonged periods.
This may be obvious, and it may be hard, but keep your cell phone turned off when not purposefully using it as well during these periods. If there is a blackout, you won’t know how long it will be before power is restored again.
After The Storm
Don’t try to turn power on immediately. Homeowners should take inventory of their utilities and find out if power is restored in the area. The electrical utility here, Southern California Edison, has a very consumer friendly website mapped with current and known blackouts and estimated repair times associated with each area. You can expect something similar for most large metropolitan areas.
Look for remaining flood waters. Do not attempt to restore your own power if high water remains, even if your utility is providing service to your area. Wait until the water subsides, at the very least until water is below the foundation level of your home. You’ll have to be smart about this, as there is no specific “safe point” at which to turn power back on.
Remember that electrical wires and boxes will run all through the walls and under the floors of your home, even if you can’t see them (which, you hopefully can’t see anyway). Any of these boxes could be dangerous if flood waters have submerged them, or even if the water has receded and left them full of water.
Ready to Flip The Switch?
One last check before you do. Look around your property for hurricane damage to trees, fences, power and light poles, building walls and roof lines. Any of this damage could have adversely affected your electrical service, so be thorough and be careful. Obvious damage to your electrical power lines, should prevent you from turning the power on until you can have the utility, an electrician or contractor give you an assessment. If you are not sure about something, it is still a better idea to wait.
Using your best judgement, and under the following conditions, it may be ok to turn power back on at your circuit breaker. Your neighbors have power or you have verified with the utility that power has been restored; your property, walls and foundation are relatively dry and free of standing water; and you see minimal to no structural property damage.
Generally speaking, and it also applies here, before you flip a main breaker on, turn off all the branch circuit breakers first, to reduce any possible load to the main. Once you do so, and return the main breaker to the on position, you can proceed to flip each breaker individually, one at a time to restore full power to the entire building. Pay attention to the performance of each breaker, do not force anything and look for trips or breakers that may not reset. If a breaker won’t reset after a couple of tries, leave it alone until an electrician can look at it.
Although, most people may not have an electrical multi-meter, it would be valuable to have during a crisis such as a hurricane. It can be used to test the main service power in and out of the main breaker as well as individual circuit breakers and then also outlets and devices in the home as you turn everything back on.
If any of this seems overwhelming, confusing or seems different than what you are seeing, I suggest you wait for an electrician or someone you can rely on to offer at least a cursory examination. Of course time is of the essence before, during and after a hurricane. Many able people will be overloaded with work trying to help one another, but safety really is paramount, and not just with electricity.
My heart and prayers go out to those who have been and are being affected by the hurricanes. I wish I could help in person, but being on the West Coast, I don’t have the contacts to do so. Yet.