Myth or truth? 6 theories about power outages at the cottage explained

Lit yellow flashlight during a power outage Photo by Princess_Anmitsu/Shutterstock

At least a couple of times a summer at my sister-in-law Mary Kelly’s cottage on Lake Muskoka, Ont., the power fails. The lights go out, the fridge and freezer go silent, and there are muttered prayers for fully charged cell phones and that the power will be restored before all the food—they’re on an island, after all—spoils.

Mary checks first to see if it’s just her cottage or if her neighbours are also experiencing an outage. She then calls Hydro One to report it. If there’s been a major storm or the power has been out for a while, she’ll hear helicopters. “I always hear them when there’s a big outage,” she says.

That’s the thing with power outages. We’re all too familiar with what’s taking place in our cottages during a blackout—the rummaging for flashlights or candles, the expletives, perhaps a jolt of excitement injected into an otherwise humdrum day.

But most of us haven’t a clue what’s happening at the other end. What caused the outage? How long can we expect to be without power? Should we turn everything off? Are we imagining it, or does this seem to be happening more frequently? We asked the experts to shine a light on the common myths we tell ourselves while we’re in the dark.

1. Recent power outages are caused by demand on the grid

Myth. Sure, lots more cottages have AC and big screens these days, but the same thing has been primarily causing power outages since the advent of, well, power.

“Blame the trees,” says Kendall Garry, a distribution line superintendent at Hydro One. Whether it’s because of wind or ice and snow, trees topple and branches break to take down power lines. This is particularly true in cottage country, where mostly overhead conductors run through the tree canopy. Second to trees is motor vehicle accidents, she says. Sometimes the outage is due to equipment failure—in the winter, ice can build up on the equipment, for example—or less commonly, animals getting into equipment boxes. But greater stress on the grid isn’t the culprit.

2. There are a lot more power outages than there used to be

Myth. Not more outages, just more awareness of outages, says Garry. Thanks to social media, we hear about every outage whether we’re personally affected by it or not, leading to an overall impression that they’re more common.

3. Climate change will lead to more power outages

True. “Climate change is causing increasingly severe and frequent storms and floods that are putting more communities and people at risk,” says Anna Kanduth, a senior research associate at the Canadian Climate Institute. Power outages in Canada cost an estimated $12 billion annually, a cost she expects will increase along with extreme weather. What’s more, as Canada transitions to renewable energy (people switching to electric vehicles, industrial plants converting away from fossil fuels), the Institute estimates that by 2050, the demand on the grid will be almost double.

Hydro One, along with other utility companies, is working hard to build reliability and resiliency into the grid, says Garry. That work includes replacing older utility poles; cutting down diseased trees near power lines; and replacing transformers and upgrading the infrastructure at transformer stations. When a harsh weather event beckons, “A lot of rigour and time goes into staffing for these events to make sure we can respond swiftly and efficiently,” she says. “Everyone in the industry is looking towards how we can improve.”

But Kanduth argues that it isn’t happening quickly enough. “Unfortunately, the risks around us have changed, but our infrastructure and electricity systems have not—and we continue to build for yesterday’s environment. We aren’t building with materials that can withstand increasing temperatures and higher rainfall, for example.”

4. The power stays out longer in rural areas than in urban ones

Myth. No truth to this one, though Garry admits it can be harder to access equipment in some off-road areas, which is why Mary Kelly sees and hears helicopters. “Hydro One has helicopters that we use in different ways,” Garry says. “We’ll use them to patrol, to move equipment, and to transport personnel.” The helicopters are moving poles and equipment out to areas that aren’t easily accessed by truck, snowmobile, or boat.

So what does happen when an outage is reported? Hydro One has automated devices on power lines that can section off part of a line to reduce the number of customers affected by an outage, and the devices can also help crews identify where the issue may be on the line.

Often, Hydro One first learns about an outage when someone reports it (so keep calling!). Crews are on call 24/7 so, once the outage is reported, they are dispatched to do a damage assessment. If possible, repairs are made right away. But if it’s a larger issue, such as a location that’s hard to reach, which requires specialized off-road equipment, or a problem at a station that requires a different team of experts, “we prioritize those outages, and we dispatch crews accordingly,” Garry says.

Workers are alerted to outages whatever the time and are told to report where they are needed, and crews can often be at the outage site in less than an hour from the time they are notified. There is a “restoration protocol,” she says, “and a plan for communicating back to the customers when they can expect to see their power back on.” The protocol is based on priority—responding to 911 emergencies or live lines that are down; then restoring power to emergency services, such as hospitals, fire and police stations, and water and sewage treatment facilities; then addressing the outage that would “do the greatest good for the greatest number,” according to Hydro One; and then finally to whoever is left.

Crews update the Ontario Grid Control Centre, which operates the province’s power system, on their progress, and those updates are shared with customers through Hydro One’s call centre, the outage map, on social media, and through text alerts.

5. If you need the toilet, fill a bucket with water from the lake to flush

True (sort of). Sure, you can grab a bucket of lake water to flush your toilet during a power outage, says Rob Davis, the owner of EcoEthic in Sunderland, Ont. But that’s only if there’s no sewage pump connected to your system. “Many systems have a pump chamber, which the sewage flows into,” Davis says. “Sewage is then pumped to the septic tank or from the septic tank pump pit to the leaching field.”

It’s the pump, he explains, that won’t work during a power outage, and while your system can hold a certain amount of sewage, whether it holds enough for continued use during an outage depends on the system—and the length of the outage. This is true for any water that goes down your drain: it all goes into the same system. At Davis’s cottage on Kashawigamog Lake, Ont., the bucket method works dandy during outages because his system is gravity fed. The neighbours, however, have a pump, so they rely on Davis’s loo to make deposits during an outage. Outhouse enthusiasts get the last laugh. No power? No matter!

6. Outages can damage electronics, especially high-end ones

True, potentially—though it’s not the outage that does the damage, it’s the restoration of power. The sudden spike in current and voltage can cause an “arc” that generates heat that can damage electronics and circuit boards. Even if the damage isn’t immediately obvious, it can cause problems down the road with devices that eventually stop working short of their expected lifespan. They can be damaged if they’re plugged in, even if they’re not on.

Brandon Boyd, the emergency operations manager for Eastern Ontario at the Canadian Red Cross, suggests turning off appliances, electrical equipment, and turning the thermostat down (if the heat was on) or up (if the AC was on) after the power goes out. Avoid any potential damage by plugging sensitive electronics into surge protectors.

Leslie Garrett divides her vacation time between her family cottage on Lake Huron and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Why 72 hours?

Are you one of the one in three Canadians who have taken the Red Cross’ advice to prepare for disaster? If so, you know that you should have three days’ worth of supplies, including food, water, batteries; anything specific to your family, such as medication and pet food; and a portable radio.

Why three days? Brandon Boyd at the Canadian Red Cross says that the “72-hour preparedness focus” was first launched in 2006. “The three-day window strikes a balance of being very useful in an emergency without appearing too overwhelming to the average person to prepare in advance.” In other words, the Red Cross knows that most of us are lazy and unjustifiably confident that we’ll be “just fine.” For the keeners, says Boyd, “having supplies for longer than three days would be amazing, and I certainly encourage folks to assess their situation and prepare for as long as is feasible.”

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