“How long is it going to take?’ Those are familiar words to all who work in the electric industry. It’s a phrase I’ve been asked thousands of times in my career. I’ve been asked by phone, through car windows, from front porches, sidewalks, bicycles, gas pumps, diners. I’m pretty sure I’ve even been asked by children in car seats. It’s the first thing people think when the lights go out. It doesn’t take long sitting in the dark to realize how dependent we are on electricity. How much it makes our lives better and easier.
As a lineworker, it’s always a good feeling to help people get those lights back on. I can remember times when I’ve been on storm or extended outages re-energizing neighborhoods and heard people in their homes cheering as their lights came on for the first time in days. No matter how tired I am or how long I’ve been working, that feeling will always make it worth it.
But what does it take to get those lights back on? Why does it sometimes take so long? Most people don’t get to experience or witness the work that goes into ending outages. Hopefully after reading this, you will have a better understanding of the process and the work that your lineworkers are doing to restore your power.
The electricity you use travels a great distance and goes through several steps to get to your home. It starts with a power plant. Power plants use fuel to produce power. That fuel could be natural gas, diesel, coal, hydro, wind, solar or nuclear. A power plant typically produces voltages of less than 30,000 volts. That voltage needs to be “stepped up” so it can travel long distances. That process starts next door in the power plant’s substation and switchyard. In the substation, a transformer will step the voltage up to 345,000 volts, or sometimes higher, and send it out on transmission lines to another substation.
At the next substation we start to get closer to our final destination. Here we start stepping the voltage down. In this second substation, a transformer will step the voltage down to 69,000 volts and send it out to smaller local substations.
These local substations are the final substation before the electricity reaches your home. Here it is stepped down, again with a transformer, to the 7,200 or 14,400 volts that can then be delivered to the poles outside your home. Once it arrives outside your home, it is stepped down a final time, yes, by another transformer. This final transformer will step the voltage down to 120/240 volts that operate all of the devices that power your lives.
What I just described is hundreds of miles of line and thousands of poles. That’s a lot of exposure for something to happen and cause an outage. Just like your home, our system has breakers. Our breakers help us reduce the exposure of the line and allow us to split our system into sections. Doing so helps limit the size of the outages and allows us to keep as many people on as possible. Breakers also help to protect equipment on the line. Ever wonder why your lights blink a few times before going off? That’s the breaker. They operate a few times trying to give the fault a chance to clear the line before they open for good.
Now that the lights have blinked, your breaker has opened, and the power is off, what happens?
The Outage Begins
6:35 p.m.: Your local lineworker gets a phone call.
When I answer the phone, I’m told that we have an outage. My first question is, “Is this an individual or a line outage?” A line outage will be a large section of line and several people. An individual will be just a single transformer or pole. If it’s a line outage, my next thought and question is, “What’s the lowest pole number?” This is why it’s important to report your outage. It verifies the outage, and it helps the lineworker decide where to go. So, if I’m told the lowest reported outage is at pole 135, I’m mentally sectionalizing the line in my head. I know that there is a set of breakers at pole 100. So, if the lowest member to call in is at pole 135, that tells me that most likely the breaker at pole 100 is open, and whatever caused the outage is past pole 100. So, pole 100 is where I’m heading.
Heading Toward the Outage
7 p.m.: The drive
An after-hours outage requires your lineworker to respond from home. Depending on where the outage is, the drive alone can sometimes take an hour.
7:45 p.m.: Arrival and line inspection
I often see people outside when their power is off, sitting on their porch or working in the yard. Sometimes I drive by several times. I often wonder what they are thinking when they see me driving by so often. Do they think I’m just driving around? Do they wonder why I’m not getting their power back on? But that’s exactly what I’m doing. The first time you see me, I’m most likely driving to the breaker. I need to go to the breaker to verify that it’s open. The second time you see me drive by I’m visually checking the line for what may have caused the outage. Checking the line can take some time. It’s one of the more time-consuming steps we take, but also one of the most important parts of restoring an outage. We can’t just simply flip a switch and restore the power. That can be dangerous for many reasons. The outage could be a line down in someone’s yard, or it could have been caused by equipment failure. Re-energizing the line under those two examples would be very dangerous to the public and could cause more damage and just extend the outage longer. So it’s very important to visually check the line before trying the breaker. Several things can cause an outage. A few examples of things I’m looking for are fallen trees, tree limbs, old line repairs that have failed, car accidents, lightning, animals and equipment failure.
Another factor that can add time to inspecting the line is terrain. We try to put poles along the road, but that can’t always be accomplished. Electric co-op lines go where they are needed, and that might be in extremely remote places. While poles and lines that run along the road can be inspected and repaired faster, terrain and direction of the line sometimes require us to run the line offroad. If it’s not along the road, the line must be checked on foot. If it’s dark, that can make this job even more difficult and time consuming regardless of where it’s located.
The Process of Repairs
8:30 p.m.: Outage cause located, but first safety.
Once we find the cause of the outage, there are safety steps that must be taken before we can start the work. These safety procedures add time, but they are vital. It’s how we survive in a dangerous job. It’s how we ensure lineworkers are protected and everyone goes home to their families. The most important thing we have to do is isolate and ground the line. This is an important step for many reasons. One reason is to protect from back feed. Lineworkers always try to be aware of their surroundings. An important thing to listen for and to be aware of are home generators. The transformer on your pole that drops the voltage down can also work in reverse. Your home generator, if installed wrong, could back feed through your transformer and put primary voltage back on the line. To protect lineworkers from this, we install grounds as close to the work location as we can on both sides of the work. These grounds connect the neutral wire to all primary wires making them all the same “grounded potential: and safe to work on. The final safety step is the safety briefing. During the safety briefing, the job plan is discussed and explained, hazards are identified, and everyone is made aware of the grounds, their location, and the location of the breaker.
9 p.m.: All the safety procedures in place. We can begin the work.
Let’s say for this outage it was a tree. A 50-foot-tall oak tree fell through the line. It’s off the road, but we got lucky — it broke a crossarm, but the pole is good. The wire isn’t broken either but is currently under the oak tree. We’ve got to cut up the tree and get the wire free. This will take some time. Anyone who has cut up a downed tree will understand the danger. You have to be careful and pay attention to the tree and how it’s sitting on the ground. Downed trees can shift, and roll while being cut. And here you also have power lines under tension, pinned down by the tree adding an extra layer of danger. Special care and awareness must be used. Sometimes the power lines must be tied down, so that they can be let up in a more controlled manner once the tree is cut. While we work to clear the tree from the line, new material is on the way. We are going to need a crossarm, crossarm braces, new insulators, bolts and ties to tie in the wire.
10:30 p.m.: The tree has been cleared and the material has arrived.
As I mentioned, the pole is off the road, so that means we can’t get a bucket truck to it. We will have to climb the pole. One of our lineworkers will put on his belt and hooks and climb to the top of the pole. He’ll bring all the tools he’ll need with him. One thing he will take with him is a handline. It’s a rope in a pulley that’s long enough to go from the top of the pole to the ground in a loop. This will be used to lift material and other objects to the lineworker that were too heavy or awkward to take up in his belt. Once he gets to the top of the pole, he will get to work. He’ll start by removing all the broken material. He’ll also inspect the top of the pole for damage we couldn’t see from the ground. Once he has it cleaned up, we will start sending up material on the handline. He should have taken the crossarm bolt with him when he climbed and installed that in the pole. The lineworker on the ground should have already put everything on the crossarm. Next, the lineworker on the ground will tie the crossarm onto the handline in a way that will allow the lineworker on the pole to just guide the arm onto the bolt as it’s being lifted up. Once the new crossarm is on the pole and all the bolts are tightened, the wire will be lifted up, also with the handline, and placed on the arm. The wire ties will be sent up, again on the handline, and the lineworker will tie in the wire. After completing all the work in the air, the lineworker will send down the handline and then climb down. Once down, he’ll remove his belt and hooks and pack them away. The lineworker on the ground will now be “making up the handline,” which just means he is getting it ready to store until it’s needed again. We’ll all carry the tools that we used back to the truck and get them packed away. Lastly, we will remove our grounds.
11:45 p.m.: Repairs complete
Now if you still happen to be outside in your yard or on your porch, you will see me drive a third time. This is good news because you are about to get your power restored. I’m heading for the breaker. Once I get to the breaker, I’ll call dispatch and get clearance to re-energize. I’ll let them know who is with me and if they are in the clear. They will check to make sure no one else is working on the line and then give me clearance to try the breaker. At this time, I will close the breaker, and your power will be restored.
12:05 a.m.: Power restored. Outage over.
Keep in mind this is just one scenario; not every outage is the same. Each outage varies in time for restoration. This example outage took around five and a half hours to restore. If the tree had broken a pole, it would have been even longer.
1 a.m.: Lineworker returns home — safe and sound.
We Work for You, Our Neighbors
We’ve become so dependent on electricity that every outage, whether it is a short outage or an extended one, can be stressful for those without power. The longer outages last, the more stressful and irritating it can become. I hope that I’ve given you a better understanding of the process so you have an idea what’s happening while you wait. Just know that your co-op and its lineworkers are doing their best to get the lights back on as quickly and safely as possible.
Your cooperative and its employees are members of your community. We live in the same neighborhoods. We shop at the same stores. Our kids go to the same schools. If your lights are off, there is a good chance ours are off too. We will always be committed to serving our members and communities by providing you with safe and reliable electricity—24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Brandon Keesee is a lineworker for SEMO Electric Cooperative in Sikeston, Mo. This article was originally published in Rural Missouri magazine.