Admit it. Whether or not you know how your home gets power, we all take for granted that we flip a switch and like magic, we get light! So, I consulted my brother and electrical engineer, Sean Jurica, to help us become more aware and appreciative of the power that magically appears in our homes. With a back ground in utility engineering, energy management and conservation, Sean can help to put some facts behind the magic of electricity.
In general, there are 3 kinds of utilities that provide power to cities. Municipal, which is city or government operated, like in Austin Energy, Electric Co-Operatives, where the people who use the power own the utility company like the Perdernales Co-op, and Public, like Oncor in Round Rock which is just a regular business providing power to customers.
Utility companies typically get their power from coal and natural gas fired power plants, nuclear power plants and renewable energy like wind and solar. Austin Energy powers us with natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind and methane from landfills. By 2012, the city should be up to 18% renewable energy sources with a contract to purchase power from a wood waste fuel plant. Austin Energy’s goal is that by 2020, we will be powered by 30% renewable energy.
Did you know that by the time power reaches our light bulb, 70-90% of the power originally generated at the source is lost? Here is a great diagram showing how the power is lost as it travels from the source to the point of use.
In the coming years we can expect to see more renewable sources of energy such as the effects from the big surge in wind power. A typical wind farm connects hundreds of turbines through a collector system to a substation which then ships power on a transmission line. Wind power is fairly predictable but energy may be generated at times opposite of when people usually use it. Solar is a viable source of power. Though typically more expensive at the utility level than other sources, solar coincides a little better with our usage patterns. It is predictable and once installed it is fairly stable in price. At the residential level, when rolled into a mortgage or home improvement loan, solar power can be cheaper than purchased power – especially with current tax credits and utility rebates.
Large solar farms are sprouting up with “concentrating solar” becoming the norm. Concentrating solar focuses the suns energy on a focal point or a focal line to increase temperature and decrease expense. A solar trough works with a long parabolic mirror focusing the suns energy on a pipe with water. As the pipe heats up, it makes steam, as opposed to hot water with a typical residential solar water heater. Another technology for concentrating solar is a solar tower which uses a large field of mirrors to focus the sun on a central tower. One more method uses a giant dish to focus the sun on a point to drive an engine. On a large scale, this type of solar power is much more efficient that the photovoltaic panels in residential use.
We can also expect to see rate changes for high usage times. Time-of-use rates are currently the norm for large consumers of power such as HEB. The most common time-of-use rate is KW demand rate where the demand price is higher during peak hours, typically summer weekdays from about 1 to 8pm. This coincides with the peak time of day is usually between 3-7pm when the heat from thermal mass is the highest and more people are using power. About a decade ago, Sean helped about 20 large clients better utilize time-of-use rates. This resulted in the clients and the utilities saving over $1,000,000 in a hot, generation constrained summer. Metering technology has advanced significantly and time-of-use rates are available at the residential level in some areas of the state. If only we could expect to save a million dollars at home!
The best way to save money on power both at home and at the utility level is to find ways to use less electricity. This is why states and utility companies give rebates for high efficiency appliances and alternative power sources at the residential level.
Sean went on to describe codes in place for our safely at the residential level. There are new codes in place for remodeling and new construction that require ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI). A GFCI protects people from shock or electrocution. In basic terms, it looks at the current coming into a circuit and the current leaving a circuit. If they don’t match, the device will trip. GFCI outlets are typically required in bathrooms and other wet locations
Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) are required in bedrooms. An AFCI can detect arcing in an electrical circuit. Arcing occurs when electricity “jumps” across air. This is hazardous because of the heat generated when an arc occurs. In the home, an arc usually indicates wires that are not connected properly.
Another truth to the magic is that all things need maintenance and regular observation. Sean says that you should check all outlets regularly for loose or damaged looking plugs. Cords that are kinked or frayed could cause a fire and should be replaced. Electricity behaves like water. If there is a kink like in garden hose, the flow is stopped which can cause a fire.
Thank you Sean for your expertise!
Electrical maintenance and safety Tips!
I welcome inspirations and tips from your home to put into future newsletters. Email them to me; Cammi Klier. Thanks!!
Sean says the most important thing you can do for electrical safety is to let the utility company know if you see a wire dangling or on the ground. A wire on the ground is likely live and may be energized at 12,000 volts or more; 100 times more voltage than in your home. A dangling wire may be even more dangerous if it is low enough to touch or come in contact with. Do not go near a wire that is out of place, call the utility company!
The February 2010 issue of Texas Co-Op Power, the magazine of the Perdernales Co-Op printed a short article about electricity safety.
“Routinely check outlets, appliances and wiring and replace warn or damaged cords.
Be aware of danger signs and identify potential electrical hazards in your home.
– reoccurring issues with blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers.
– flickering or dimming lights
– a persistent burning smell coming from an appliance, room or area.
– the warming or discoloration of outlets, or sparks from an outlet.
– a tingling sensation when you touch an electrical appliance or other metal objects.”
Visit www.usfa.dhs.gov for more electrical fire safety information.