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Published on
October 19th, 2023

Can Cold Weather Lead To New or Worsening Electric Problems?

As a building owner in New York City, you likely notice that the winter brings many problems, including apparent electrical issues. Whether all cold-weather electrical problems result from temperature is debatable, but no one can deny that the weather exacerbates the situation.

Some things are out of your control as an owner, but others may come down to maintenance and equipment issues. Learn more about the effects of cold weather on an electrical system and what you can do about it.

5 Common Causes of Electrical Problems in the Winter

1. Ice Accumulation

The most significant threat of the winter is ice and snow accumulation, mainly ice. Something as simple as frozen water can bring down not only your building’s power but also the greater NYC grid.

Power lines help deliver power throughout NYC, but excessive added weight can down wires or cause damage. Half an inch of ice along the line can add as much as 500 lbs. Damage or service interruptions can begin when ice accumulation achieves a thickness of a quarter of an inch.

Also, ice accumulation on tree branches above power lines poses a threat. Between a quarter and half an inch of ice adds enough weight to tree limbs to break small and weaker branches. Accumulations of a half inch or more are enough to break larger branches, causing extensive tree damage. Even small branches can cause damage to power lines.

Underground distribution networks provide electrical service to 82% of NYC consumers. While this is a measure of improved reliability with underground networks, they are also vulnerable to colder temperatures and winter conditions.

Electrical problems can occur around underground cables, mainly those near tree roots. The root system of a tree is vulnerable to freezing; it also provides a pathway for ice to build around underground lines. Also, because lines are usually stiffer in the winter because of the cold, they are more susceptible to damage from moving roots — roots stretch and pull during high winds and storms.

2. Power Outages and Tripping Circuit Breakers

Ice is not the only thing threatening your power in winter. When temperatures are colder, people tend to stay home more often. The more tenants stay in, the more power they consume. The more power they consume, the more taxing it is on electrical panels.

In winter, many people use energy-taxing tools and devices, including space heaters. Also, suppose tenants aren’t spacing devices out evenly across outlets. In that case, the energy drawn from individual circuits compromises the system so winter can feel like a continual relay race to and from the circuit breaker box.

To prevent electrical problems, you can send tenants electrical safety guides for winter. Provide tips for tenants to limit power outage risks and discuss space heater safety, such as:

  • – Keep the device 3 feet away from flammable items
  • – Don’t leave the unit unattended
  • – Plug it directly into an outlet

3. Temperature Effects and Damage

The electrical grid is a system of thousands of primarily electromechanical parts. As with other electric or mechanical equipment — think of your car — the system works best in a neutral environment where temperature and moisture conditions are stable and in the mid-range.

As with most devices, the system works well even in extremely frigid temperatures when new. A reliable system passes tests to ensure capable and reliable service. Unfortunately, reliability can wane with age. Much of the NYC grid system is already past its prime.

If the system does not encounter excessive stress, it may operate fine through the temperature fluctuations of winter. Still, devices and mechanisms may run slower or more unpredictably in colder temperatures, meaning the grid and your building’s system are at risk of numerous electrical problems.

Consider a tree branch falling on a power line outside your property. The collision causes a surge. Because of colder-than-usual temperatures, your circuit breakers did not switch off fast enough, allowing the surge to affect multiple devices and appliances in the building.

4. Outdated Electrical Equipment

Heavily used and old equipment can create several potential problems in winter, from fire hazards to power outages. If you use electrical equipment that is over 10 years old, check its compatibility with your existing system. Sometimes, older equipment draws a lot of power and can put tremendous pressure on your system.

Space heaters have an average lifespan between 10 and 20 years. While the equipment, if well-maintained, can last two decades, it doesn’t mean it remains relevant with current electrical and building codes. If a heater is incompatible with your current system or is past its life expectancy, it becomes a potential fire risk.

Some professionals recommend upgrading any electrical devices or appliances that are more than five years old from your space. A preferred measure is to comply with regular maintenance and ensure the devices are compatible with modern regulations and systems.

5. Static Electricity

Unlike the other electrical problems on this list, static electricity presents a safety risk in winter. Many people may consider winter a wet season, especially in NYC, with all the rain, snow, and ice. Still, the air is cold and dry, allowing electrons to build up on the skin.

Most people consider static electricity a nuisance more than a safety risk, but given the right conditions, it can cause electrical damage, fires, and possibly explosions. Static electricity is a charge imbalance between dry materials, which can include electrical wires. With enough energy, the spark from static electricity can ignite flammable materials, including dust.

Maintain a relative humidity level of 55% to reduce the risks of static discharge. You can achieve desired humidity levels by installing humidifiers. Installation options include whole-building units or individual apartment units.

Bolt Electric Can Help Prevent Winter Electrical Problems

Call To Learn More

Winter electrical problems may stem from cold temperatures and specific seasonal conditions like ice. They can also result from equipment age, demand or static electricity. Properly maintaining the system and all essential equipment is the key to reducing wintertime risks. Contact Bolt Electric at 212-434-0098 to schedule a property assessment and discuss an annual service contract.

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