Snohomish County Public Utility District No. 1

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Customer Service (M-F 8a-5:30p): 425-783-1000

Power Outage FAQs

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Why are we among the first to lose power and the last to get it back?

When a major storm hits, our job is to restore electric service to as many people as quickly as possible. That means we deal with the biggest problems first and work our way to the smaller problems later. Unfortunately, this means customers living in wooded areas at the end of long driveways or dead-end streets might have longer outages than some other customers.

The restoration process is simply a matter of clearing a path so electricity can flow from its source to your home. The power is sent over high-voltage transmission lines to our substations, then over primary distribution lines that run along the major arterials in your neighborhood, and finally branches off to your street and to your home. If any of those lines are damaged anywhere along that path, your power will go out.

When a major storm hits, our first order of business is to repair the high-voltage transmission lines so electricity can get to the substations. We’re also concerned about restoring service to hospitals and responding to other safety emergencies. Once the substations have power, we then turn our attention to primary distribution lines so we can get the main circuit breakers back into operation. Then, once the circuits have power, we can concentrate on getting electricity to those who lost power because a line is down at the end of the driveway or down the block.

This last phase of an outage response is time-consuming because, instead of getting thousands of customers back on by fixing a high-voltage distribution line or hundreds by fixing a primary distribution line, we must clear trees and branches from lines that serve only a few customers. This is why it sometimes takes several days to get power fully restored after a big storm

Why is it that electrical power goes out but the phone and cable TV is seldom out?

An electric power line is constructed differently than a phone or TV cable. The power line is bare wire, while the phone and TV cable is a bundle of small wires contained within a plastic jacket. As a result, if a tree falls into a power line, it shorts out the line and either causes the circuit breaker to trip back at the substation or blows a fuse down the block. Either way, the power goes out. Meanwhile, if the tree falls into a phone or TV cable, the signals carried by the wires within the cable can continue to flow.

Is there a way to hook up an emergency generator when the lights go out?

Many homeowners have the urge to fire-up a portable generator if the power goes out. But, if used incorrectly, a portable generator can cause a deadly accident or could be damaged when power is restored. To operate safely, a portable generator must be separated from your home’s electrical system. If it’s not, the generator will backfeed electricity out through the circuit breaker panel and into the neighborhood.

If you use a portable generator, do not plug it into the household circuit unless you have a transfer switch installed by a licensed electrician. Or, when you use a portable generator, make sure that the things you power are plugged directly into the machine.

Learn more about portable generators.

Has any consideration been given to putting power lines underground?

We are looking at underground systems to improve electric service in many areas because they provide a clean, uncluttered appearance to a neighborhood and they reduce the number of tree-related power outages. Most of our electric system is built on overhead poles, however, because it is less expensive and easier to maintain.

The PUD estimates that, depending on terrain, voltage and current-carrying capacity of a power line, it can cost as much as three times more to install an underground power line than an overhead power line of the same distance. The difference in cost can be as much as $1.5 million more per mile for a new distribution feeder line.

Also, while underground systems are protected from falling trees in wind storms, they have their own set of problems, such as failures caused by overheating, flooding and corrosion, and by careless digging. Moreover, repairs to an underground line are much more difficult and time-consuming than they are for an overhead power line.

Underground lines are an option that many homeowners, developers and communities choose. Many communities have requirements dictating that any new developments are designed with underground lines. The developers must bear the cost of placing the lines underground. In the case of a homeowner or a neighborhood opting to convert from overhead lines to an underground system, they, too, are responsible for the cost of placing power lines underground.

What causes the power failures that last just long enough wipe out all the digital clocks?

The PUD’s electric system is simply a larger version of the electric system in your home. If you’ve ever had a short circuit in your wiring or if you’ve ever overloaded a circuit, you’ve probably had a circuit breaker trip and shut off the power to a portion of your home. The same thing happens in our electric system. What’s different is that the voltage is higher, the wire is bigger and is strung on poles, and the circuit breakers are located in a substation rather than on the circuit breaker panel in the garage.

The short outages of just a few seconds usually occur when a tree limb falls and touches two wires at the same time, causing a short circuit. The circuit breaker back at the substation will instantly trip open, and all the customers served on that circuit will lose power.

After hitting the power line, most tree limbs will continue their fall to the ground. Consequently, we have installed automatic reclosers that will automatically switch the circuit breaker back on five to ten seconds later and get the electricity flowing again. If the tree limb is still on the power line, the circuit breaker will immediately trip the power off again. But, if the limb is gone, the power will stay on and the outage will have been limited to just a few seconds.