How Do Air Conditioners Strain the Power Grid?

How Do Air Conditioners Strain the Power Grid?

All over the country, local power grids are experiencing temporary outages due to demand for air conditioning. Heatwaves inspire millions of people to crank their air conditioners up – and that surge of demand places huge strain on the power grid. If the power grid can’t handle the spike, the power goes out for everyone, and sometimes for hours at a time.

But how exactly does this happen? And what steps can you take to reduce the strain you put on the power grid?

Air Conditioners and Power Grid Blackouts

The power grid is an extensive network of transmission lines designed to carry power from power plants and other energy producers to consumers like you. This grid is responsible for monitoring and supplying enough power to meet demand.

Most of the time, ample power is generated. Power plants produce much more power than is used by the local population, collectively. However, if there’s a sudden surge in demand, and consumers collectively begin using more electricity than suppliers can readily provide, problems begin to emerge. The problem is complicated further if there are supply issues; for example, if multiple major power plants are offline for maintenance, or if local conditions prevent them from operating at full capacity.

Depending on the intensity of the mismatch of supply and demand, damage to the power grid can occur; if the damage is extensive, transmission lines may fail and sections of the power grid may become inoperable for a period of time.

However, most power grids use a system of rolling blackouts as a defensive emergency measure; when demand exceeds a certain threshold, power is strategically cut to various areas for non-overlapping periods of time. Power to essential locations, like hospitals and fire departments, is preserved, while power to residential neighborhoods is cycled at pre-planned intervals so that the power provision is tapered without anyone being without power for too long.

Air conditioning is frequently a culprit behind rolling blackouts (and even power grid damage, in some cases) because it demands a lot of electricity. While modern units are incredibly efficient (especially compared to their older counterparts), they still remain one of the most energy-intensive appliances in a modern household. When a heatwave arrives and every homeowner in the city turns their AC units on at once, it becomes too much for most grids to handle.

How to Use Your Air Conditioning Responsibly

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to use your AC unit responsibly during heat waves – and help prevent rolling blackouts and power grid strain.

  • Upgrade your old AC unit. Old AC units are total energy hogs. By contrast, modern AC units have far more cooling capacity while using a fraction of the energy of old units. If your air conditioner is 10 years old or older, it’s going to be completely outclassed by a newer unit. Upgrading and installing a new unit may cost a few thousand dollars, but it’s going to give you a much more comfortable experience, save you money on your utility bills for many years to come, and reduce your impact on the power grid at the same time.
  • Improve cooling efficiency in your home. Along similar lines, you can take steps to improve the cooling efficiency of your home. If you can make it more efficient to cool your home, your AC unit won’t have to work as hard, which means you’ll achieve a lower temperature while using less electricity. There are many steps you can take here; for example, you can invest in trees to serve as shade for your house, reducing the temperature spike associated with sunny days. You can improve the insulation in your home, allowing higher retention of cool air. You can even replace your old windows, resulting in less air leakage.
  • Keep the temperature higher. When the temperature outside goes up, it’s tempting to lower your interior temperature even further. But doing so will force your AC unit to work harder, resulting in more demand for electricity. Instead, fight your intuitions and try to keep your temperature higher. Instead of setting the internal temperature to 72 degrees F, set it to 75 degrees; it’s not going to make a huge difference in your personal comfort, but it will reduce your personal impact on the power grid. If you can, turn it up even higher, or turn your AC unit off altogether (temporarily).
  • Pay attention to peak times. It’s no coincidence that heat-driven rolling blackouts tend to start around 5 or 6 pm in most areas, since that’s when many people get home from work – and confront the residual heat from the afternoon sun. If you can avoid using your air conditioner during “peak times” in the late afternoon and early evening, you’ll be doing your part to reduce the strain on the power grid.
  • Find alternative ways to stay cool. Air conditioning is amazing, but it’s not the only way to stay cool. Consider making use of ceiling fans, personal fans, cold showers, and even temporarily refrigerated clothes to keep yourself cool on hot days.

If everyone followed these steps, power grid strain from air conditioning on hot days would no longer be such a problem.

How to Stay Cool During a Blackout

If you do experience a blackout and your AC unit is rendered inoperable, it’s important to stay cool.

Try the following:

  • Stay on lower floors, since heat rises.
  • Keep your shades and drapes closed to avoid sunlight-based heat.
  • Wear lightweight clothing or strip down, if appropriate.
  • Drink cool water and stay hydrated.

When the power is restored, feel free to turn your AC unit back on – but use it responsibly.

If your AC unit is old and inefficient, or if you just want to make less of an impact on your local power grid, it may be the perfect time to upgrade. Schedule an appointment with Mackey Mechanical to learn more – or to get a free estimate for installing a new unit!

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