Winter Weather Dangers: Power Outages, Frozen Pipes, And More

on February 07 2014 10:53 PM
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Power lines damaged by snow in South Dakota Flickr via Creative Commons / USFWS

It’s your worst winter nightmare: the temperatures drop, and then the heat and power goes out. It’s been a reality for many Americans during recent snowstorms, thanks to the many ways that severe winter weather can have an impact on utilities.

Sometimes, technical problems strike at the worst possible time. More than a thousand residents of Jacksboro, Texas, were recently left vulnerable after the city’s gas supply was shut down Thursday. With temperature in the teens, people had no heat, according to CBS 11 News. The problem started on Thursday, when some liquid got into the Texas Gas Service’s natural gas system via an upstream pipeline.

"Liquids can block the normal flow of the natural gas and cause service interruptions and equipment failures," Texas Gas Service spokesperson Christy Penders wrote in an email.

After the system was shut off, crews worked to vacuum the liquids out. The utility expects to start restoring service to customers Friday evening, according to a release from the utility.

There are many ways that winter weather can cause power outages. Snow, sleet, and slush can buildup on trees and power lines, either snapping the lines directly or snapping tree limbs that bring down the line as they fall.

Ice and snow from this week’s winter storm in the Northeast knocked power out for at least 623,000 customers in the suburbs near Philadelphia on Wednesday, with at least 68,000 outages in New Jersey and more than 8,000 outages in the New York City-Long Island metro area alone. Another snow storm is expected this weekend, but meteorologists expect it not to cause as many problems.

Americans that rely on propane to heat their homes are also feeling the pinch this winter. Even amidst a natural-gas drilling boom, inventories of the gas are down by 50 percent and prices are going up. The shortage is due to multiple factors, according to the New York Times: more propane is being used to dry corn after last year’s bumper crop, exports have been rising, and demand has surged with this winter’s unusually frigid temperatures.

Frozen pipes are another danger in cold weather – as water freezes, it expands and may cause cracks in the pipes. Prevention measures include wrapping exposed pipes in insulating material like newspapers. When pipes do freeze, the best thing to do is to carefully poor hot water over exposed pipes – or, if possible, use a hair dryer.

One good thing is that in several states, utility companies are mostly prohibited from cutting off power to residents who fall behind on their bills in the winter months, thanks to what is called a “cold weather rule.” But the protection usually isn’t automatic – customers, including families and senior citizens, have to contact their utility when they fall behind and set up payment plans.

For those that want to prepare for the next bout of severe cold, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a comprehensive guide to preparing for winter storms, as well as what to do during and after an outage.

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