Power Outages and Blackouts - How Your Association Can Minimize Risk
Losing power is never fun. But it’s bound to happen at some point, so preparation is the best defense. Obviously, different types of communities are affected by blackouts in different critical ways: high-rises lose their elevators and water; resort-style gated communities lose the ability to operate their gates. For residents, a blackout may be a short-term nuisance. For a community association, it can be a major headache in terms of risk management, safety and potential equipment damage that can provide an unwelcome shock to your budget.
Most of the time, blackouts and lesser outages can’t be predicted, so it’s important that preparation is constant and consistent – there’s no blackout season like there is for hurricanes or monsoons! Read on for information about the basics of blackouts, things to do in the event of one and how you can plan, just in case.
What is a blackout?
A blackout is total power loss to a building or property. Partial power losses are considered brownouts, but a community can have both. “In 2006, we lost power completely to the south tower at Kips Bay Towers Condominium in Manhattan,” said Yvette Diaz-Moreno, managing director. “The property is more than five acres and the towers are on two different power grids, so only went one dark. To the power company, that’s a brownout for the entire property, but obviously, we considered it a blackout for the building.”
Joe Bolich, vice president of community management for FirstService Residential, said he’s seen blackouts impact large gated communities as well. “The Newport Coast Community Association in California is quite large and we’ve seen half the community lose power while the other half was fine,” he said.
Blackouts can be planned or unexpected. “Most of the planned blackouts we see in Southern California are due to the power company replacing and upgrading equipment as the power grid is stressed by new construction. The power companies are great about notifying residents and sticking to their schedule,” Bolich said. “There are also short-term planned blackouts that the power company uses as a management tool. They send out a flex alert, letting residents know of potential outages, but there’s no way to know which neighborhoods will be affected on what day or time. They usually only last about two hours, so the repercussions aren’t too severe for homeowners.”
That blackout at Kips Bay Towers was an emergency situation caused by a transformer fire in a manhole near the property. Power was out for 12 days! Other causes of emergency blackouts can be power lines downed by heavy storms, car accidents and lightning strikes.
What should your association do when the power goes out?
“Our gate attendants are required to immediately notify Southern Cal Edison, our power company,” said Ashley Sanchez, senior community manager at Newport Coast Community Association. “Once they’ve done that and we have some information back from the power company, including the source of the outage and the expected time to fix it, we send out a notification through our Resident Alert tool.”
In the event of power failure, and its sudden return, building systems can be damaged if they aren’t shut down properly, Diaz-Moreno said. “In a high-rise, all water pumps and boilers need to be shut down manually after the power goes out. Otherwise, they will push water through at high pressure when the power is restored, and that water will blow into units through the plumbing and cause a lot of damage. If your building has a negative air pressure situation and you have roof fans, shut them down manually. If you don’t, you will have a problem if they come back on instantly. We unplug and shut down all electronics and electrically operated systems that we can, including the elevators. We don’t want to risk anything shorting out. And we immediately call for an electrician to be on the premises when power is restored, because despite the best efforts, there’s sure to be damage somewhere.” Electrical damage to critical equipment can be costly; responding quickly and properly during a blackout can minimize the need for expensive repairs or even replacement of important systems.
Diaz-Moreno said that her doormen and their assistants know there is a printed list of residents who may need assistance, or have special medical equipment that requires power, kept at the front desk. They immediately get that list and start checking on people, going door to door if needed.
Bolich said it’s important to close amenities. California law says that pools can only be open if the recirculation pumps are running. No power and no pump means no pool. They also close fitness rooms and other indoor amenities for general safety and because there won’t be air conditioning or air circulation in the facilities, even if there’s adequate natural light.
At large gated communities like the Newport Coast Community Association, keeping the gates running and visitors and residents moving freely is usually the biggest immediate challenge. “We open the gates manually if needed. Some have to be hand cranked, some pulled open and some default to open when there’s a power loss,” Bolich said. “Then we use cones to cut traffic to one lane for both residents and visitors to maintain a high level of oversight regarding entry into the communities.” A roving patrol provided by the third-party gatehouse vendor checks on gates and facilities throughout the community as well. The eight manned gatehouses are regularly provided printed lists of resident contact information so that guest access is possible even when computers are down.
How can your association plan ahead for blackouts?
Now that you’ve learned about examples of things to do during a blackout to minimize costly damage to your community and maximize safety in a difficult time, let’s talk about planning for a blackout. What kinds of things should you do ahead of time to minimize the risk to your community?
- Stock up –Diaz-Moreno keeps stocks of glow sticks, bottled water and batteries on hand at Kips Bay Towers. Bolich said that gatehouses at the Newport Coast Community Association are regularly stocked with batteries, bottled water and non-perishable food, as well as reflective vests for the gatehouse staff, flashlights and traffic cones.
- Check your equipment – At Kips Bay Towers, the stairwells are affixed with glow-in-the-dark tape. Because that can stop glowing over time, it’s checked regularly. They also have small generators on hand for charging mobile phones and rechargeable batteries, so those get fired up regularly to make sure everything is in working order. Battery backups are also checked regularly. In addition to checking your community’s emergency power supply sources, make sure food, batteries and first aid kits aren’t expired and replace when necessary.
- Delegate tasks ahead – It’s important that all staff know their roles in an emergency, what to do and how to do it. A comprehensive written plan, built with input from management, maintenance and other building or community staff, is essential. Knowing what to do makes emergency response go more smoothly and also helps calm staff, which in turn calms residents. Print your plan and post it where all staff can access it quickly in an emergency.
- Test your plan – Conduct blackout drills. Test response times. See what gets overlooked, and update the plan for the future. Make sure the right staff are handling the best task for them in a crisis. Repeat as needed.
- Bring in professional help – Your local emergency management teams may be able to provide guidance in creating a blackout plan and other emergency response plans. They know your area and your climate. A professional property management company with local expertise will be able to tap into resources that will help your community be prepared for emergencies as well.
Emergencies happen. That’s a fact of life. Good preparation can help lessen the disruption of a blackout and other emergencies. Following our suggestions above will help your community better respond to crises, big or small.