Enduring One-Half Of A Weird Brownout

The familiar “POP!” sound from outside of my apartment on a hot summer day meant that the power transformer out on the street gone kablooey, plunging the complex into a brownout that produces enough power to run small appliances and flickering lights, turning on the hallway emergency lights in the hallways (if the batteries weren’t dead), and making the filter in my fish tank gurgle loudly in protest. This time around my apartment suffered a brownout that affected only the kitchen and the bathroom. Poking my head out into the hallway, the overhead lights were still at full power. No flickering lights or dead batteries. It didn’t make sense.

After checking the circuit breakers, my initial assumption was that one-half of the circuit breakers went bad. This happened shortly after I moved into my apartment nearly nine years ago, where the circuit breakers for the kitchen went bad and the maintenance guy replaced them. Fortunately, this assumption was wrong. The power came back on 90 minutes later. A PG&E truck drove around the complex to check out the power meters in the outdoor utility boxes.

Why did the brownout affect one-half of the circuit breakers?

The answer that made sense was that one-half of the circuit breakers were on a separate power circuit. The maintenance crew enlarged the utility boxes around the power meters earlier this year, allowing PG&E to replace the analog power meters with newer digital power meters. If the apartments got wired with two main lines running into each circuit breaker box, one of the main lines got re-wired to a different path to the power grid.

The construction work done within the complex over the last few years had to do with running utility lines through the emergency back entrance. When the complex got built in 1969, the utility lines ran from the street in front and represented a single-point of failure. When I lived in my apartment during the early years, an outage that required a major repair job to the utility lines affected the entire complex. One winter I had to endure five days without running water and took showers at the gym. That doesn’t happen anymore.

The apartment complex now has dual utility lines that make a single-point of failure less inconvenient. Well, almost. I can get used to enduring one-half of a brownout, especially if it impacts the part of the apartment I’m not using at the time. The water pressure in the bathroom is strong, consistent and tastes great, but the water pressure in the kitchen is weak, inconsistent and taste like a rubber hose.