What to Do in Case of a Brownout

Photo: S. Diddy/Flickr.

We’re not quite out of the woods yet, folks ... This sweltering, record-breaking doozy of a summer still has a few weeks left in it, a few weeks in which the nation’s frazzled air conditioning units and ice pop-packed refrigerators/freezers will continue to work overtime, placing additional strain on already exhausted electric grids. By now, some of you may have already experienced brownout conditions, a temporary voltage reduction of around 8 percent — technically referred to as a “sag” although we like Gizmodo’s far more dramatic use of the word "choke" — in which utilities intentionally limit the amount of juice flowing through stressed-out power lines in avoidance of a complete system shutdown otherwise known as a blackout.

A rolling or rotational blackout is an entirely different creature from a total blackout as they, like brownouts, are initiated and controlled by utilities to take strain off of overworked grids during peak usage hours. Somewhat of a rarity outside of California and Texas, rolling blackouts are considered more of a last-ditch emergency effort than brownouts and usually last longer, between 60 and 90 minutes according to the California Energy Commission. In America, a rolling blackout always comes with warning from utility companies.

Unlike a rolling blackout, you may not even notice that a brownout is occurring, although a telltale sign often involves the flickering or dimming of lights (even a slight reduction in voltage can affect their brightness). During brownouts, the voltage rarely drops from 120 or 110 to below 105. Yet during brownout and potential blackout situations, it is possible for voltage to dip to potentially damaging levels — and when it does, you’ll want to protect yourself, and most importantly, your precious gizmos and gadgets. Here’s a few things to do before — and during — a summertime brownout.

Power Down

In advance of a brownout, it’s wise to power down and unplug appliances and electronics. During heat wave-induced power events, appliances with motors and data-storing devices such as computers are most vulnerable to damage caused by voltage reductions, planned or not. It’s best to play it safe. That said, when the lights start to dim, it’s best not to whip out the hair dryer, pop a Lean Cuisine dinner in the microwave and put a load of laundry in the dryer. Those things can wait. And if turning off the AC even for a couple of hours means that you’ll simply melt, crank it up a few degrees (75 to 78 degrees F is optimum) from your preferred arctic setting to further reduce strain. Trust us: You’ll survive.

Use Surge Protectors

In addition to unplugging and powering down vulnerable electronics during brownout events, it’s a fine idea to invest in surge protectors if you haven’t already. Although a surge protector won’t do much good while power is being sagged (they protect against spikes in voltage, after all), the fresh jolt of juice after a partial or complete outage may cause havoc on your electronics. Some types of advanced power strips, in addition to protecting against power surges, offer protection against power sags. And if you’re serious about protecting your electronics, there are also brownout- and blackout-specific battery backup/UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems and voltage conditioners on the market. APC and Belkin are two popular brands to look out for.

Gather (and Charge up) Essentials

Although a scheduled brownout may come and go without incident, it’s best to prepare yourself in the event that things take a turn for the stumbling-around-in-the-dark worse. During heat waves, make sure to unearth your supply of flashlights and rechargeable lamps from their hiding places (usually at the bottom of the kitchen junk drawer) and refresh their batteries if needed. We’re particularly fond of this versatile model that’s ideal for brownout dinner parties. As always, proceed with utmost caution when using candles and ensure that emergency kits and your stockpile of dry/canned edibles are stashed in easy-to-find locations. And since you very well may have begrudgingly powered off your air conditioning and unplugged your fans during a power event, be sure to keep properly hydrated. Also, brownouts and blackouts are a good excuse to strip down to your underthings and parade (carefully) around the house. You may want to draw the blinds first.

Try to Make It Fun

Although a brownout or rolling blackout may be an inconvenience, make the most of it. It’s not every day that we’re forced to detach ourselves from the humming and buzzing distractions of everyday modern life so take full advantage of a power event, no matter how much of a hassle it may be. If it’s not too horrid outside, head to the backyard and plop yourself under a tree with a good book and a cold beverage, take an impromptu field trip to a local park or recreation area (bonus points if there’s a swimming pool or beach involved), or huddle up with kids and a flashlight for a round of ghost stories while camping out under the stars. And if spending too much time outside isn’t an option, get yourself to a museum, movie theater or mall to seek relief from the heat (provided they haven’t gone dark as well).

MNN tease photo: Shutterstock