When the lights go out

Prep now for unexpected power outage
Thursday, March 21, 2013
By Amie Silverwood

Toronto’s energy system is getting old. As it ages and the city grows, more pressure is being put on the system. Residents of highrise condominiums are particularly vulnerable to long-term power outages, which can leave the elderly stranded in the dark on high floors without water, food or even flushing toilets.

Many condominiums don’t have adequate emergency plans or resident lists that identify those who might need help in these situations. A little bit of planning can go a long way in preventing residents from being left alone in the dark.

The Triomphe condo towers in Toronto have experienced three major power outages since they opened 10 years ago. But when the lights went out last summer, no one was ready. It is generally recommended for households to be prepared to cover their own needs for 72 hours but management cannot assume all residents are able to do this.

Triomphe property manager, Onelia Lippa, had only been on the job for six months when the outage occurred. She worked with her team around the clock to bring the site back online and keep everyone informed.

“Communication to residents is vital to their well-being,” says Lippa. “(It’s important to) make sure the elderly or people who are going to require emergency help are tended to. Give them a phone call. Just extending that courtesy is important. You don’t want them to feel like they’re out there all by themselves with no food and water.”

The power was down for two and a half days at Triomphe in the heat of the summer. Some residents packed up and stayed at hotels or with relatives for the duration but there were many who couldn’t find alternative accommodations. Lippa and her team did what they could to bring some comfort by pumping water to the recreation centre on the second floor. Residents could use the washrooms and, though the water was cold, they were able to use the showers.

While the power was down, Lippa used the fire phones to keep residents up-to-date on any developments since those with mobility issues could not be expected to gather in the lobby for updates. She may not have known when the power was to go back on but she found residents appreciated any information she was able to share.

The power outage the condo experienced was not the first nor would it be the last.

“It’s pretty substantial what happened here. A lot of the voltage that the corporations are consuming basically exceeds the amount the transformers can handle in the hydro vault,” explains Lippa, who investigated the cause of the blackout using thermal scans and by consulting electrical engineers.

“A thermal scan is a snapshot of all your main electrical panels and it tells you any areas that are overheating (and) any areas that should be addressed or need replacing. And that’s how we found out there was an issue with the main switchgear overheating downstairs. We aren’t sure if the problem is because of the transformer being undersized or if the switchgear was overheating.”

Lippa expects the building to run smoothly through the winter but hopes the problem is solved before the summer heat hits again and she is forced to turn the chillers back on. It’s during that time that her efforts to save energy will have the greatest impact on residents.

Located in North York, the Triomphe buildings house at least 2,000 residents. This neighbourhood has seen a lot of development recently and will continue to see new condos built, which will add more stress to the grid. Toronto Hydro is keeping a close eye on this and other areas of rapid growth. It’s planning some major investments to keep the power flowing without interruptions.

“We are seeking more money to upgrade equipment in that Yonge Street corridor,” says Jack Simpson, director of generation and capacity planning for Toronto Hydro, “That upgraded equipment will provide upgraded capacity too but that’s subject to regulatory approval, (so) we’re trying to stretch the resources there to meet that heavy demand.”

Mike McGee, president of Energy Profiles Ltd., explains the problems with Toronto’s energy grid are highly politicized with no easy answers. The area is an energy highway dealing with frequent traffic jams. With so many condominiums planned, traffic headaches are bound to worsen.

“Toronto Hydro was denied a rate application that otherwise was meant to address what has been recognized as a number of bottleneck spots where they needed to make investments,” says McGee. “There’s not one simple answer. There are very definite hotspots, if you will, where certain feeders and circuits are desperately overloaded and work needs to be done.”

McGee adds the problem goes beyond Toronto Hydro to the Ontario government’s long-term power plans. The Ontario Power Authority (OPA) was charged with the responsibility of coming up with a long-term integrated resource plan a number of years ago but overruled it with decisions to bring in more green and nuclear power.

“We need a non-political body to look at the future electric system both in terms of likely demand and proper supply mix to get there,” says McGee. “The government has taken its Green Energy Act and said, ‘No, this is partly how we’re going to run the power system.’ So that’s a whole other story. Who is making these structural long-term decisions for our power system? Right now it’s floating out there.”

In the meantime, the Triomphe’s property manager is coming up with a strategy to deal with power outages. Lippa is forming an emergency communications committee that will be in charge of making a list of residents in need of assistance during emergencies. These volunteers will make sure residents who are isolated in their units are visited and brought supplies as needed, and they will be responsible for distributing updates throughout the buildings. This will allow the management to focus on shutting down the equipment and bringing the system back up safely once power is restored to the buildings.

Amie Silverwood is a freelance writer.

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