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Restoring power after an outage: what we do and how we do it

Image of BC Hydro crew repairing downed power line

Weather, animals, and trees, all share the blame

Most often, power outages are caused by factors beyond our control.

In the summer months, power outages are often caused by animals such as birds and squirrels coming in contact with our equipment, especially in the early morning hours.

In the winter months — 'storm season' — power outages are really all about the weather. Snow storms, ice storms and wind storms can all cause trees to fall on our power lines or the wires themselves to be knocked down.

Our vegetation management team routinely inspects trees and other vegetation growing near power lines to identify potential hazards, then either prunes or removes any hazard trees. But they can't get them all.

If you come across a fallen power line, keep a safe distance — at least the length of a city bus — and follow these steps.

Another common cause of power outages that can happen at any time of the year is motor vehicle accidents that damage power poles. Power may go out immediately due to the impact of the vehicle, or crews may need to disconnect power when they arrive on site to make the area safe and facilitate repairs. Because electricity can travel through vehicles, an accident involving our equipment can be extremely dangerous so please keep your distance.

Outage reported, crews dispatched

There are a variety of ways that we're alerted to an outage in our electricity system. Customers can report their power is out either online or by calling 1 888 POWERON. It's always helpful to have customers call us to provide additional information about an outage whenever possible. For example, if a customer can tell us a tree is on the line outside their house, then we know what type of crew we need to dispatch.

Our electrical system infrastructure — including our substations, feeders, and meters — also provides automated alerts and alarms that notify us when there is an outage. Meter outage notifications are best used for individual or smaller scale outages. In large events such as wind storms, information from substations and feeders are a primary source of outage information, with meter data used to help determine how widespread the outage is.

Smart meters aid in restoration effort

Smart meters add a new level of efficiency that we didn't have before.

"Previously, we would have sent a crew out to investigate an outage or trouble incident that can now be investigated remotely by checking the meter. Sometimes the outage isn't actually on the electricity system but rather within a customer's home, such as a blown fuse or tripped breaker. By using meter information, customers don't have to wait for a crew to arrive and we're able to walk the customer through how to fix the issue on their own," explains Mike Minichiello, who oversees the restoration centre.

Smart meters also allow us to remotely confirm when the power has been restored so crews can focus their attention on other trouble calls. This is especially helpful when there are multiple outages and incidents occurring at the same time.

Image of wires down with storm debris

Estimating restoration times isn't an exact science

When your power goes out, you want to know when you can expect to have it back on. Our mobile-friendly online outages page provides up-to-date information about current outages — including estimated restoration times as soon as we know them and maps of outage areas. You can also get outage information on a specific outage by calling 1 888 POWERON.

Estimating times for restoration (ETRs) are anything but an exact science. It's only once crews have arrived on site and assessed the damage that we have enough information to provide customers with an estimated time that the power will be restored. Our goal is to have this time posted within 30 minutes of the crew arriving on the scene.

The cause of an outage is the biggest factor in estimating how long it will take to get power restored. For a blown fuse on a single transformer caused by a squirrel or bird getting into our equipment, crews can typically get power restored quite quickly. For something more complex — such as a tree falling on a line, a motor vehicle accident, or a broken pole — crews will require more time to get power back on as the work involved is much more extensive.

"We want to tell customers what we know, when we know it," explains Minichiello. "We do our best to ensure the information we're providing is as timely and accurate as possible, which is why we wait for crews to complete their assessment before we provide customers with an initial restoration estimate. We then get regular updates as work progresses."

Restoration times can and will change. A seemingly simple repair job — such as plugging in a new fuse to a transformer — can become a more complex repair job if that fuse goes too— indicating that there's something more going on. When this happens, the crew will provide a new restoration time for the lengthier outage, which is then communicated to customers.

Prioritizing work during larger storm events

The major windstorm that hit the Lower Mainland this past August, leaving over 710,000 customers without power, had many wondering how we decide where to restore the power first.

Our number one priority is always public safety. So in a large-scale outage with extensive damage, we first focus our attention on the areas where primary lines are down. A fallen primary line poses the highest public safety risk and crews will stop to fix a primary line and ensure the area is safe, even if they're on their way to another job.

We also consult with the individual municipalities experiencing multiple outages for their help in determining priority areas for restoration — so this would include lines that provide power to hospitals and municipal fire and water systems.

Be prepared if the lights go out

Power outages can be an inconvenience for you and your family, especially when so much of our daily lives rely on having fully-juiced electronics and Wi-Fi access. We invest in and regularly maintain our system to continuously improve reliability for our over 1.9 million customers. However, power outages are inevitable and it's important to be prepared for when they do happen.