Shedding light on brownouts

Power outages can be a minor inconvenience if you're downloading a song - or writing an article - but it's the brownouts that are the real problem. Those little glitches can cause hefty bills.

Power outages can be a minor inconvenience if you’re downloading a song – or writing an article – but it’s the brownouts that are the real problem.

Those little glitches can cause hefty bills because most electronics aren’t designed to withstand that kind of instability, and these days everything from coffee-makers to fridges have digital components.

Replacing a burned-out circuit board on an oven, for example, can cost upwards of $500.

And brownouts are hard to defend against.

The average surge protector just isn’t designed for low-voltage fluctuations, so they don’t offer much protection, said Martin Lehner, the owner of Iditarod Designs, an IT company.

“Something like a power bar will protect against surges; an over-voltage situation like a lightning strike,” he said.

Which is why many power bars offer equipment guarentees up to $30,000, Lehner added.

It’s really rare for big surges to get past a power bar.

Small fluctuations in amps and voltage are much more common than a full-blown blackout, which is why Lehner and his company suggest that sensitive electronics be hooked up to both a battery backup and a line-voltage regulator.

“If it’s only a little bit, like five volts, the UPS (battery backup) won’t necessarily notice that and switch over to the battery, so that’s why we always recommend a line-voltage regulator,” he said.

At $100 a piece, those devices really aren’t that expensive when compared to a $1,500 plasma TV or sound system, added Lehner.

Last year there were 106 power outages across the territory. A little more than a quarter of those were planned by the utilities for scheduled maintenance. The rest were caused by everything from snow to squirrels.

But that number doesn’t include brownouts, because no one tracks those numbers.

“A lot of people think that the electrical system is this very sophisticated beast that communicates with us all the time; it does not,” said Laura Carlson, spokesperson for Yukon Electrical. “The way we find out that there’s a brownout or even a power outage, unless it affects one of our buildings directly, we have to wait until a customer calls us.”

Brownouts can be caused by any number of things, she said.

“It could be the frequency of the electricity coming through the system, it could be an interference on the actual line itself, it could be power-quality issues, but that’s really rare,” said Carlson. “It happens everywhere.

“Down south it’s lightning and wind. We don’t get so much of that here – we get the critters and the trees.”

In many cases, it doesn’t actually knock the power out, but it disrupts the flow, she said.

“That’s a phase power outage, so it means one part of the electricity that’s coming into your home is disrupted but the other part of the lower-draw appliances work,” said Carlson. “People would be calling and saying things like, ‘My fridge isn’t working but the lights are still on in my house.’

“The electricity system is a complicated beast.”

Yukon Electrical recommends that homeowners install a surge protector right on their electrical panel.

“They’re not hugely expensive, a couple hundred dollars, but compared to what you’re protecting in your home, it’s a well worthwhile investment,” she said.

Contact Josh Kerr at