Power Surge 101

Paula LaBrot

Topanga Canyon is the edge of the un-burned wildlands. This spring has found us out of the drought, exploding with new growth, but adding to the possibility of future fires. To mitigate the very real risk of fires started by downed lines, Southern California Edison (SCE) has installed switches throughout their grid that allow them to cut our power during strong storms and winds. When power is switched back on following a blackout, the lines bringing the electric load back into your house experience what is called a power surge.



First, let’s understand voltage. Voltage is a measure of electrical pressure. Think of a hose attached to a water faucet. You turn on the faucet and the high pressure at one end of the hose pushes the water to the other end. Electricity is the stream of current that feeds into your house and then through your house wiring to all your appliances and electronic equipment. The stream is a steady pressure…until…something happens. Like what? The flow is cut off. When the electricity is switched back on, a huge surge can flood your wiring and overwhelm your electrical appliances and equipment.

Howstuffworks.com reports, “If the increase in electricity lasts for one or two nanoseconds (billionth of a second), it’s known as a spike; but if it lasts three nanoseconds or more, it’s called a surge. Either one can put stress on your electronic components or can damage them severely.”

A surge can burn out the appliances in the kitchen, fry the motherboards on the home computers, take out the power switches throughout the home. It can even start a fire,” according to R.S. Andrews, an Atlanta electrical service company.



According to a State Farm Insurance report, “Increasing voltage above an appliance’s normal operating voltage can cause an arc of electrical current within the appliance, generating heat that can damage the electronic circuit boards and other electrical components.” Think of your phones, computers, TVs, medical equipment, appliances from toasters to fridges, spa and  pool pumps, power tools, heating, air-conditioning, garage doors, even your very wiring and every piece of equipment that plugs into it. Smart homes? Oh, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

We also have brownouts to contend with. Brownouts are reduced voltage or pressure dips due to high demand, like everyone using their air-conditioning on hot days. Fluctuating voltage can also be destructive. These smaller surges can slowly cause damage so your computer or stereo may continue to function until the integrity of the electronic components finally erode. This shortens the lifespan of appliances and electronics.



Semper Paratus. Be prepared. Here are some suggestions.

  • Cheapest fix: Unplug. Computers, TVs, medical equipment, phones, fridge, washer/dryer, etc., so when the power comes back on, they are not connected to any circuit. You don’t have to unplug your equipment at the wall; just pull the power cord out of the computer or appliance.
  • Whole house systems can be installed at your main panel to prevent the surge from coming in. It’s like a pressure release valve that can divert excess current into the ground or away from your home. Considering the abundance and fragility of microprocessors, modern households may find this system a good investment.
  • Surge protectors that look like power strips are a must in our house. Their strength is measured in joules. The joule rating is an indication of the amount of energy that can be absorbed by the surge protector before it fails. For a computer or TV, a 2000-2400 joules rating is recommended. For power tools, use 1000 joules.
  • Remember: Surge protectors can lose strength each time they absorb a surge, so they won’t work forever. If a 1000 joule surge protector takes a 1000 joule hit, it is done for. Sooner or later they use up all their joules and work just like a plain old power strip.
  • When the lights come back on, wait a few minutes for your current to stabilize before you plug back in.



It’s not if we are going to have a blackout; it’s definitely when. With this information, you can be prepared to mitigate damage both before and after the outage event.

One more observation. Underground wires, which don’t need to be de-energized in storms or winds, are being installed along Sunset Boulevard on the westside. Why not for us first, where the need is much more urgent? I don’t see too many lethal brush fires happening in urban areas, as opposed to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) that is Topanga, which is also a designated “Severe Fire Danger Area.”

Just asking and thinking about bloated pensions and rotting infrastructure.

Well, love all, trust few, always paddle your own canoe. (and get a generator).

Vamos a ver!


Editor’s Note: Good Question, Paula. In March 2015, SCE began preparations for utility undergrounding in a small section of Topanga’s town center, an area that began 300 feet north of the Verizon building and ended at Cuesta Cala (by Hidden Treasures). The project was to be completed by the end of 2016 but in August 2015, construction was delayed when archaeological artifacts and remains were found (Topanga Messenger, November 29, 2015). Just before SCE announced a hiatus through the holidays into January 2016, they reported that “80 percent of the Edison structures [the vaults] were in, 40 percent of non-Edison utilities were in, and 65 percent of the mainline structure was done.” Come 2016, however, the project disappeared. Eventually, SCE explained that conflicting projects were in process and the undergrounding could not continue. Last year, SCE’s David Ford suggested they may be looking at it again, but we’ve heard nothing more. Maybe it’s time we asked if they can complete the electrical rollover and remove the telephone poles and wires. Not only would Topanga be safer in a fire event, but the town center would match the scenic beauty of our Scenic Highway 27.


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace. plabrot@messengermountainnews.com

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