You are sitting on the couch reading your favorite book. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice the lights dim, or your computer may shut off. It might last just a few seconds or a few hours. What causes this? Is your power about to go out? Where did you put the candles? Is your computer, TV, or stereo going to be ok?
Most of the time, there is a steady flow of electricity coming through the power network into your home, but sometimes variations in voltage may occur. These can be in the forms of surges, spikes, sags, brownouts, or blackouts. A surge is a slight increase in voltage, while a spike is a larger increase in voltage. A sag is a slight decrease in voltage, while a brownout is a bigger decrease in voltage. And, of course, a blackout is a total loss of power.
Our focus here is brownouts. A brownout occurs when there is a larger drop in voltage in the electrical supply coming into your area. This could be intentional if there are many people using power at the same time, such as during a hot summer when everyone has their air conditioning running. Or it could be unintentional, such as the power grid experiencing some sort of surge in their equipment or something happening between your circuit breaker box and your equipment.
Where does the brownout originate?
Brownouts may come from external or internal sources. Externally, brownouts may be caused by thunderstorms, power grid problems, a failure at the power plant, or, as mentioned, intentionally adjusting electricity in an area to make up for very high demand or in emergencies. Power plants have predictive models to determine how much voltage they need in a certain area, but this calculation is an inexact science. For example, the power company cannot always plan for acts of nature or extended hot or cold spells.
Another protection automatically built into the power grid is transformers installed on power poles. These act as a giant resister that regulates power that comes to your area or home. They regulate the voltage coming into your home to a certain point, but it has its limits as well.
One reason the power company may intentionally cause a brownout is to prevent a blackout. A blackout is a total loss of power. Again, this may be intentionally done by the power company in emergencies, in the event of high-power usage to distribute the available electricity across the grid, or it could be caused by acts of nature or other surges in voltage. Power companies have a big job keeping us all lit, and we take this for granted. Due to circumstances beyond their control, they may not be able to adjust the grid fast enough for us not to notice.
Internally, or in your home, brownouts can be caused by too many electrical appliances using the same circuit, not enough power on a circuit that runs a major appliance, or bad wiring in your home. Each circuit breaker in your electrical box is designed to handle a certain amount of voltage. If you plug too many things into the outlets that are wired to a particular circuit breaker, your devices will not work correctly. You will either see a dip in power, or the circuit breaker will shut off, and you will need to reset it.
In the event of a brownout or blackout, check with your power company to see if there are widespread problems. If there are not, you may want to consult a professional to make sure you do not have a problem in your home’s wiring system.
Protecting your electronics
If your electronics use any kind of circuit boards, network brownouts have the potential to cause damage to the device. Electronics are designed to run on a steady power source. Surges can fry the circuits and destroy the device. There are a few ways for you to protect your devices from internal or external brownouts. If you are at home during the brownout, your best bet would be to unplug your TVs, computers, or major appliances that may be affected by a surge in power. If the problem is external, this should be a short-term solution. Just as during a complete power outage, hopefully, the worst you will have to do is hit a reset switch, reprogram your channels, or reset your clocks. This is much better than having to buy a new TV or computer.
You can also install power strips or a whole-house system that protects from surges, but your best bet would be to install a battery backup or UPS (uninterruptable power supply) system. This system will provide continuous power during a brownout or blackout and protect against damage.
If you use power from the public electric grid anywhere in your home, it is up to you to have a plan to deal with brownouts or blackouts. Install surge protectors or a battery backup, and make sure you are not plugging too many things into any one of your outlets. If you suspect an issue, immediately have a licensed professional check out your wiring. It is always a good idea to have a backup plan, such as a generator or at least candles or flashlights handy. Unplug your expensive electronics during brownouts or times of inclement weather. Chances are, the brownout or blackout won’t last very long, and you’ll be up and running very quickly with all of your electronics in good working order.