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Rolling Blackouts: What Are They and How Do We Stay Prepared?

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What Are Rolling Blackouts?

The first time I experienced a rolling blackout, I had no idea what was happening. The power suddenly went out one hot summer afternoon, and I assumed it was just a regular outage. After about an hour, the lights came back on. Then, a few hours later, everything shut off again. This on-and-off pattern continued throughout the evening.

I eventually learned this was something called a "rolling blackout." Essentially, the electric company intentionally turns off power in certain areas for a short time to prevent a larger, prolonged blackout. By cycling outages between neighborhoods, they avoid overloading the whole system.

 

What Are Rolling Blackouts

Rolling blackouts are a last resort tool used by utility companies when electricity demand is greater than supply. Usually this happens on extremely hot days when everyone has their AC blasting at the same time. The strain can damage equipment and cause longer multi-day blackouts if the grid isn't stabilized.

The "rolling" part refers to how outages roll from one block to another. For example, my neighborhood loses power from 4pm-5pm, then the next area over goes dark from 5-6pm, and so on. That way no single area has to go without electricity for too long.

I never knew power companies could just shut off electricity intentionally. But rolling blackouts are an important way for them to prevent bigger problems when supply is low and demand is high. Now I know to expect these temporary disruptions during the dog days of summer.

Why Do Rolling Blackouts Happen?

The lights flicker and then everything goes dark. You sigh, realizing it's another rolling blackout. These short power outages seem to happen more frequently lately. But what causes them and why do they keep occurring?

The main reason utility companies implement rolling blackouts is to prevent long-term damage to the power grid infrastructure. Our electricity infrastructure largely dates back to the 1950s and 60s. It wasn't built to handle the energy demands of today's plugged-in world. When everyone cranks up their AC on a hot summer day, it puts major strain on an aging grid.

Rather than allow an overload that could cause permanent damage, energy providers will proactively cycle the power on and off. Doing so avoids dangerous overheating of substations and transformers. Think of it like giving an old car engine a break so it doesn't overheat.

Rolling blackouts also prevent the entire grid from crashing. By temporarily cutting power to some areas, it reduces the overall load demand. This helps avert a cascading regional blackout that could leave millions in the dark.

So while frustrating, remember that short rolling blackouts are protecting you from even longer multi-day outages. They give the old power infrastructure a much-needed break. Hopefully soon our grid can be modernized to meet today's energy appetite. But for now, occasional blackouts are a small price to pay to keep the lights on across the country.

How Long Do Rolling Blackouts Last?

When the lights suddenly go out, the first question that pops into your mind is probably "How long will this last?" The answer can vary quite a bit.

Typically, rolling blackouts are intended to last about an hour or so in each affected area. The idea is to reduce strain on the electrical grid just long enough to get demand back in balance with supply. Utility companies try to limit outages to an hour at a time to minimize disruption.

Related Reading: How Long Does a Power Outage Last?

However, during extreme weather events that knock out power generation facilities or transmission lines, rolling blackouts can drag on for days or even longer. I remember suffering through nearly a week-long spate of blackouts during a severe heat wave one summer. Daytime temperatures soared above 110°F, causing everyone to crank up their ACs. With the grid overloaded, we experienced multiple outages per day.

Some of them lasted only an hour or two, but a couple dragged on for 4-5 hours. I learned the hard way not to open the fridge or count on the lights coming back soon. We ultimately had to throw out hundreds of dollars worth of spoiled food that week.

So while grid operators try to keep rolling blackouts brief, circumstances sometimes force extended outages. That's why it pays to be prepared with backup power, just in case the next time the lights go out, they stay out for a while.

Is There a Rolling Blackout Schedule?

I remember the summer of 2020 when rolling blackouts first came to our neighborhood. The state had warned there might be outages, but we never expected them to hit us.

It was a Saturday night and our family had just sat down for dinner when suddenly the power cut out. The house went dark and silent except for the whirring of the refrigerator as it slowed to a stop. We fumbled for flashlights and listened to the radio for updates.

How Long Do Rolling Blackouts Last

Apparently our entire county was part of a rolling blackout scheduled by the state's power authority. They said outages could last 1-2 hours as they rotated through neighborhoods to relieve pressure on the grid during peak weekend use.

We felt frustrated and powerless as we waited in the dark, not knowing when the electricity would come back. The blackout lasted over 3 hours—far longer than they predicted. It was miserably hot without the AC.

After that first time, rolling blackouts became a frequent occurrence that summer. The outages always seemed to hit at the most inconvenient hours between 4-7pm on weekends. There was never much notice given, maybe a warning earlier in the day.

It was incredibly disruptive for our family plans. We learned to have backup power sources ready and avoid using major appliances during peak hours when possible. But the rolling blackouts were largely out of our control.

How Do Rolling Blackouts Work?

I still remember the hot summer day the power went out. I was sitting at home trying to stay cool with the AC blasting, when suddenly everything shut off. The lights, the TV, the fridge - all dead. I had no idea what had happened until I looked out the window and realized the entire neighborhood was dark.

That was my first experience with a rolling blackout. I later learned it was because our aging power grid simply couldn't handle the demand that day. Most of the infrastructure dates back to the 1950s and it's struggling to support our modern energy needs. On really hot days when everyone has their AC on high, the system gets overloaded and breaks down in areas.

To prevent long-term damage, the utility company has to shut off power in neighborhoods temporarily. They rotate these short blackouts around different zones so no one area loses power for too long. It's certainly inconvenient, but better than having the whole grid crash from overuse.

I try not to use too much power now on hot afternoons when blackouts are more likely. But I also keep flashlights, batteries and non-perishable snacks ready just in case the lights go out again. Rolling blackouts are frustrating, but being prepared makes them a little less stressful.

Which Areas Experience Rolling Blackouts?

Rolling blackouts can happen almost anywhere. Growing up, I remember the lights in our house randomly going out for an hour or so every now and then. At first it was confusing - why did our power keep getting cut? But over time, we realized it was part of scheduled rolling blackouts to prevent overloading the grid.

I've since learned that rolling blackouts are common in many parts of the country, especially in the summer when air conditioner use spikes. Places with aging infrastructure seem to be hit the hardest. But really, no area is immune. The power grid is interconnected, so an overload in one place can cause blackouts to ripple outward.

If you want to know about outages in your area, check online power outage maps. Many electric companies and government agencies post real-time maps showing current blackouts. It's color-coded - you can see if an outage is planned or unplanned, small or widespread. The maps are a great way to stay informed and prepare if a rolling blackout is headed your way.

How to Prepare for a Rolling Blackout

When the power goes out unexpectedly, it can feel scary and chaotic. But with some simple preparation, you can face a blackout with confidence. Here are my top tips for getting ready for a potential rolling blackout:

Stock up on water - Having bottled water on hand is crucial, as pumps will stop bringing water to your faucets. Get a 2-3 day supply for drinking and cooking. Fill some pots and the bathtub with water for flushing toilets or washing up.

Buy non-perishable food - Stock your pantry with canned goods, protein bars, trail mix, dried fruit, nuts, and anything that doesn't require refrigeration. Crackers, peanut butter, and canned tuna/chicken can make easy no-cook meals.

Get batteries and flashlights ready - You'll need light sources when the power goes out. Make sure you have working batteries for flashlights and battery-powered lanterns. Candles work in a pinch but can be a fire hazard.

Back up computer files - Prevent losing valuable data by backing up files on an external hard drive or cloud storage. If you rely on a CPAP machine or other medical devices, talk to your doctor about back up power options.

Prepare generator fuel - If you have a generator, make sure it's working and you have enough gasoline stored to power it for several days if needed. Test it every 3-6 months.

Charge a portable power station - These compact battery packs can power phones, lights, and small appliances for hours. They charge via solar panels or wall outlet so they're ready when you need portable electricity.

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Preparing for a potential blackout doesn't have to be difficult or expensive. A few simple steps can give you peace of mind that you and your family will stay safe and comfortable if the lights go out.

What to Do During a Rolling Blackout

The lights flicker off and your home is suddenly plunged into darkness. The air conditioner shuts off and a silence falls over the house. You realize the power is out and it's not just a temporary blip. A rolling blackout has hit your area. While disruptive and inconvenient, there are some important steps to take during a blackout to keep safe and minimize damage.

First, unplug appliances and electronics like TVs, computers, and microwaves. That way when the power suddenly comes back on, it avoids a surge that could damage electronics. If you have a desktop computer, turn off the power strip. For laptops, disconnect from the charger.

Avoid opening the refrigerator or freezer if possible to prevent cold air from escaping. The less you open it, the longer food will stay cold inside. If you know the blackout will last awhile, consider moving refrigerated items to a cooler with ice.

Stay cool by closing blinds and curtains during hot weather. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Move to the lowest, coolest part of your home. If it’s cold weather, put on layers to stay warm or head to a community warming center.

If you rely on electric medical devices, make sure you have a power backup plan in place. Never use generators, grills, camp stoves or similar items indoors, as these can lead to dangerous carbon monoxide buildup.

While rolling blackouts can be disruptive, taking some simple safety steps will help you ride it out until the power comes back on.

How to Stay Safe During a Blackout

When the lights go out, it's important to take precautions to stay safe. One major risk during blackouts is carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of gas generators or appliances in the home. Make sure your carbon monoxide detectors have fresh batteries and are working properly. Avoid using gas stoves, ovens, or generators indoors, as these can quickly fill your home with the deadly gas. If you start to feel dizzy, nauseous, or get a headache, get to fresh air immediately and call 911.

It's also smart to fill up your bathtub and any spare containers with water before or at the start of an outage. This gives you access to water for drinking, cooking, and hygiene in case water service is disrupted. Limit your water use to the essentials. Having even a few gallons of water can make a big difference in an extended outage. Staying hydrated is vital, especially in extreme temperatures when you can't rely on fans or air conditioning.

Keep flashlights, batteries, and battery-powered lanterns handy and turned on to prevent falls or injuries in the dark. Unplug major appliances to avoid damage from power surges when electricity is restored. Follow local alerts and updates from your utility company. Stay put, remain calm, and ride out the blackout safely until the lights turn back on.

How to Prevent Rolling Blackouts

As power grids become more strained, it's up to all of us to prevent rolling blackouts from happening. There are small changes we can make in our home energy habits that can really add up over time. I know it can feel frustrating since it seems like we as individuals can't make a huge dent. But if everyone does their small part, together we can prevent blackouts.

First, try to use high energy appliances like the washer, dryer or dishwasher during off-peak hours. I've started doing laundry late at night or early in the morning before the kiddos wake up. The power grid is under less strain during these off-peak times. Every little bit helps.

It also helps to air dry dishes and clothes when you can. I know it's not as convenient, but running these appliances less often prevents strain on the grid. In the summer, I'll hang clothes outside to dry in the sun and breeze. And letting dishes air dry has become a habit for me.

Finally, unplugging appliances and electronics you aren't using can really make a difference. I bought some power strips for our entertainment center and office area to make it easy to cut phantom load. If the TV isn't on, I make sure to switch off that power strip so it's not sucking energy in the background.

I hope these little lifestyle changes can help prevent blackouts where you live. I know it feels like we have so little control as individuals, but together our actions can protect the grid. Have hope that if we each do our small part, we can avoid disruptive blackouts.

Portable Power Stations

When the lights go out, portable power stations can provide literal peace of mind. They give you the ability to power essentials like lights, small appliances, and electronics during a blackout. I never realized how stressful total darkness could be until experiencing my first unexpected rolling blackout. Fumbling with flashlight apps on my phone while trying to find spare batteries was no fun at all.

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That's why I invested in a portable power station that can be recharged by solar panels. Now when the power goes out, I simply pull it out of the closet and hook it up to a lamp or two. It gives me enough illumination to move around safely while I wait for the electricity to come back on. I also use it to keep my cell phone and laptop charged so I can stay in communication with family to make sure they're ok.

The great thing about portable power stations is that many of them can be charged via solar panels. That gives me peace of mind knowing that after a long-term blackout, I'll be able to keep my essentials powered up by sunlight alone. I never want to be totally in the dark again, so having backup solar power provides some comfort and preparedness. Portable power stations have become an indispensable part of my emergency kit.

My Personal Rolling Blackout Experience (with Better Preparedness)

I'll never forget the rolling blackouts we experienced during that hot summer of 2022. It was easily over 100 degrees every day that July, with no rain in sight. Our usually reliable power grid struggled under the immense strain of so many blasting their ACs nonstop.

The blackouts started without warning one Friday evening around dinner time. Suddenly, everything went dark in our house. The TV shut off, the fridge stopped humming, and even the ceiling fans slowed to a stop. My family and I looked around in confusion, wondering if a fuse had blown. But soon enough, reports came in that rolling blackouts were sweeping through our neighborhood to relieve pressure on the grid.

We weren't fully prepared when that first blackout hit. I scrambled to light some candles while my wife tried to get our portable battery packs charged up enough to keep our cell phones running. Our two kids were scared by the sudden darkness. We did our best to calm them down by lighting up the living room and eating a picnic dinner by candlelight.

After the power returned about an hour later, I knew we had to get better prepared. I stocked up on batteries, candles, and propane for our camping stove. I filled up some water jugs in case the water got shut off too. And I researched the best portable power stations to keep our essentials running.

When the next rolling blackout hit a few days later, we handled it much better. I was able to keep the lights on, charge devices, and even run a small fan to keep cool. The kids weren't nearly as frightened since we made it into a bit of an adventure. We learned that with the right preparation, we could ride out the blackouts in relative comfort.

power outage with portable power station

While frustrating, those rolling blackouts taught me the importance of emergency preparedness. Now our family keeps a stocked "blackout kit" ready to go, just in case we lose power again. A little planning and backup power can make all the difference in getting through a crisis calmly and safely.

Tips for Families During Blackouts

As a parent, keeping the kids entertained during a blackout can feel like an impossible task. With the TV, computers, and phones off, they'll be begging for something to keep them occupied. Here are some ideas to help pass the time:

  • Break out the boardgames: Dust off those boxes gathering dust in the closet. Classics like Monopoly, Scrabble, and Clue are great for family game nights. Light candles or lanterns so you can see the boards.

  • Read together: Grab a stack of books and take turns reading aloud. Make silly character voices or let the kids act out scenes. Reading by flashlight makes it feel like camping.

  • Build a fort: Drape sheets over furniture to build an indoor tent. Fill it with pillows and stuffed animals. Kids can play pretend or just snuggle in their cozy hideaway.

  • Get crafty: Make sock puppets, design paper airplanes, or create art from recycled materials. Use it as a chance to get creative. Kids can put on a puppet show by flashlight.

  • Cook or bake: If you have a gas stove, do some cooking or baking. Make easy no-bake treats like rice crispy bars. Kids can help measure and stir.

  • Backyard camping: Pitch a tent and sleep outside under the stars. Roast hot dogs or make s'mores over a firepit. Feel like you're on a family campout.

  • Band together: Talk to nearby neighbors also affected. Share food and supplies. Kids can have impromptu playdates to keep each other entertained. Get through it together.

Having activities and games planned ahead of time will make a power outage feel like a fun family adventure, not a disaster. With a little creativity, you can turn a blackout lemon into lemonade!

Preparing Pets for a Blackout

When the lights go out, our furry friends are affected too. Making some preparations for your pets can help keep them safe and comfortable during a rolling blackout.

Have extra food and water on hand. Dry kibble and canned food that doesn't require refrigeration are good options. Make sure to have a manual can opener as well. Bottled water stored in a cool, dark place is ideal for pets. Rotate stored food and water supplies to keep them fresh.

Keep copies of your pets' ID tags, microchip information, and vaccination records together in a folder or waterproof bag. This will help you verify their records if you need to board them or seek veterinary care during an extended outage.

Consider purchasing a pet-safe flashlight collar or vest light for dogs to make them visible in low light. These battery powered lights clip onto collars and harness straps.

Prepare crates, carriers, leashes, and harnesses so they are easily accessible. This will make it easier to keep pets secure.

Have any necessary medications refilled and on hand. Ask your vet for guidance on proper storage.

Pets tend to pick up on our own stress and anxiety. Remaining calm and keeping familiar routines can help reassure them. Extra play time, brushing, and cuddling are good ways to provide comfort too.

A little preparation will go a long way toward keeping your furry friends happy and healthy during a disruption like a rolling blackout. Focus on their basic needs and your own peace of mind.

Peace of Mind for Future Blackouts

The thought of losing power unexpectedly can certainly cause some anxiety. But there are steps you can take to get through safely and prevent panic during future blackouts.

  • Stay Informed: Check for news and updates from local authorities so you know what's happening. Having the facts can ease uncertainty.

  • Have an Emergency Plan: Discuss a plan with your family for things like where to meet and how to contact each other. Test flashlights/batteries monthly.

  • Prepare an Emergency Kit: Keep essentials like water, non-perishable food, blankets, battery-powered radio, and alternate charging methods together in one place.

  • Learn Your Area's Risks: Understand the common causes for power loss where you live, like extreme heat or storms. This allows you to anticipate outages.

  • Consider Backup Power: Portable power stations provide peace of mind by powering essentials for hours or days during an outage. Having backup electricity can provide major relief.

  • Stay Connected: Keep your phone charged so you can contact emergency services if needed. Having connection to the outside world makes a big difference emotionally.

  • Remain Calm: Take deep breaths, light candles or talk with family to stay calm if the lights go out. Panic causes more harm than good.

Planning ahead is key to maintaining peace of mind for future blackouts. Having the proper tools and emergency plan in place will help you get through power disruptions safely.

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