Why Doesn’t Someone Just Flip the Switch Already???

Have you ever thought about where your electricity comes from? It’s so easy to walk into a room, flip a switch, and expect there to be light, or turn on your sewing machine and step on the pedal for those stitches to magically come flying out from under the presser foot. How many other wonderous things do we take for granted every day???

While I am far from an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable, on our electricity system, I have picked up a few things after being married to a lineman for 18 years. And after reading so many post-Sandy posts on Facebook and Twitter about “why does the block next to me have power and I don’t?”, I thought maybe this layman (lay-woman??) could help explain.

First the electricity needs to be ‘made’ somewhere. I really don’t know how all that works, except that it is the ‘generation‘ stage of the process, and usually involves a coal-fired plant, nuclear plant, or hydroelectric (dam). Oh, and wind power, one of the newer ways.

Now you have to transfer that electricity through power lines. Often it has to travel many miles before it gets to it’s final destination (i.e. your house.) Because it can lose energy as it travels, the electricity first goes through a transformer to make it powerful enough to travel those long distances, and then travels through high-voltage transmission lines. These are usually the large metal structures you see in between towns, not the wooden poles usually found near homes. (DH works in electric transmission, so he works on these high voltage lines.)

High-voltage transmission lines

Once it gets closer to your town, the voltage has to be lowered to be useable in your house. This occurs at a substation, which has tranformers and circuit breakers and switches and many other parts.

Now the power coming out of the substation travels on distribution lines, many of which may leave one substation to travel to different customers. And eventually it ends up entering your home.

File:Electricity grid simple- North America.svg


Electricity Grid.
Click on the illustration to go to a Wikipedia page that explains in more detail.

So as you can see, there are many parts that are all interconnected. When my mom & brother were out of power, he kept complaining to me that there was only one power pole down in their neighborhood, so why didn’t they just fix that and get his power back on? Or people were complaining on Twitter that they weren’t seeing any utility workers in their neighborhood, so apparently no one was really working on fixing the power issues.

Perhaps the explanation above will help some to understand that until the generating station, transmission lines and substations are all up and running, fixing that one line outside your house isn’t going to help. And since there are different lines coming from a substation, it is possible for one block to be on and the next to be dark if there is a problem on one distribution line and not the others. There isn’t just one big switch somewhere that they flip and it magically turns on all of the power to everyone all at once.

There are also different type of linemen. Some work on transmission lines, some work on distribution lines, some work on the substations and transformers. And the line work has to be carefully choreographed. You don’t want someone switching on the power to a substation if the substation workers are not yet finished with their repairs. So when you see utility workers sitting in their vehicles, they may be waiting until they get the ‘all clear’ to proceed with the next part of their work. Or waiting for a different piece of equipment or necessary part to be delivered.

Thank you to the many people who have offered words of support to my DH as he embarks upon his journey. I know he and his co-workers want to restore power as quickly as possible to everyone affected, but they also want to come safely home to their families. So next time you turn on that light switch, be thankful that there are people out there who know how to make all this electrical hocus-pocus work. Hug a utility worker today!!!!

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4 Responses

  1. Amen! I won’t be taking it for granted any longer.

  2. Thank you so much for this, I had a basic understanding of the process and this helped my knowledge. I hope your husband and all of the workers who are helping in so many areas are all are safe and appreciated.

    As a PS, my husband used to plow snow for our local township and I would get the calls of those who always wanted to be the first plowed and never wanted to know the process. I always wanted to say that I was not plowed out either, but I refrained. The saving grace were the people who called to thank him. I hope your husband and others get many thanks.

    • Thanks, PB. He’s worked other storm jobs before and most people are truly appreciative, bringing them coffee or treats or a thank you, etc. But in any line of work (as your DH knows first-hand), there are always those who think they know how to do it better, even though they have no clue as to what the process involves. I’m guilty myself – before I had my shop I thought it would be so easy to do certain things, once I actually owned a shop I had a much different perspective! LOL

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