How many expensive electronic appliances and devices in our homes are being harmed or destroyed by faulty voltage in our electricity supply system?
The answer is that no-one really knows, but it could be a very large number. It could easily be costing many millions of dollars a year across Australia.
Nominal voltage for households and businesses in Australia is meant to be 230V, and within a range of 220-240V, in line with international standards to allow manufacturers to make a range of appliances rated for 230V.
But what if fault-driven voltage variations on the electricity grid take it significantly higher or lower? The answer is that appliances can stop working, solar inverters can be knocked offline, and some electronic devices can be irreparably harmed.
Short of massive voltage surges, such as those triggered by lightning strikes, most consumers may never know if they’ve been subject to a voltage problem, such as faults within transformers on power poles in their local neighbourhood.
Unlike utility smart meters, however, Wattwatchers devices report voltage in real time. If there’s a problem anywhere near to where there’s a Wattwatchers Auditor installed, then the fingerprints of voltage problems can be exposed – whether energy distribution utilities like it or not.
On Monday 17 April, we had a weird experience at my home in Sydney. Our oven started and then stopped with an error on screen titled ‘Brownout error’. This error alert would randomly appear after the oven was turned on. Then it continued to a point where the oven was useless, not even getting to a temperature suitable for cooking.
This continued for over a week, with the oven soon followed by the clothes dryer which would just shutdown with no error signal at all.
What was happening? The oven error gave me an idea that it related to electricity supply, while the dryer gave me no hints. On speaking to the oven manufacturer they were very clear this was not an error of the oven but of the electricity feed into the oven, probably voltage.
Strange, I thought. Why was this happening? Where do you start with this sort of problem?
I didn’t think the energy companies would be that believing or helpful. Then I slapped my forehead. Doh, I have our Wattwatchers Auditor products installed on the entire house, the solar system and major circuits including the pool pump and the oven.
On investigation of the data captured by my Auditors, and displayed on our partner app Solar Analytics, it was clear one phase of the voltage had gone haywire (see graph below). We have a 3-phase wired house, and while two of the phases were relatively normal one was wildly out, dropping to below 190 volts. I suspect that’s way off a safe level for the well-being of many appliances.
This indeed explained why the appliances were playing up.
Next contact was to energy distribution company Ausgrid. Their people were very helpful and advised we should have contacted them sooner. Ausgrid had no records of any problems, or at least not any they were prepared to tell me about. I can only wonder if other homes in my transformer neighbourhood were affected but had not idea what was going wrong with their electricity?
Within a few hours Ausgrid had sent out a technician to my place, and with some testing he too agreed that something was not right.
A trip to the transformer around the corner led to ‘something being fixed’ – I wasn’t told what, but it could have been as simple as a loose connection – and the voltage returned to normal. This showed up immediately on the Wattwatchers data feed.
The graph below shows our voltage for the month of April 2017 and you can clearly see where the phase error begins on the 17 April and subsequently the fix by Ausgrid on Thursday 27 April.
This data is amazing and what is also obvious to me is the tightening of the phases post Ausgrid fixing the transformer problem, whatever it was, which I’d alerted to in the first place. It is clear there was some greater than normal variation beforehand, then serious phase failure with who knows what long-term damage to electrical appliances and electronic devices, and then subsequently much better voltage parameters.
People I talk to with knowledge of electricity think problems like the one my home suffered are happening all the time across electricity grids, and mainly consumers have no idea – and nor do the utilities until some more catastrophic failure occurs.
I bet insurance companies that have to pay out for equipment failures would like to have a ‘Voltage Watch’ service fed by Wattwatchers devices, and so would many consumer advocates and individual consumers.
So there’s another compelling reason to keep behind-the-meter data independent and readily available to consumers. I would have hated to be trying to fix this issue without clear data fro my Wattwatchers devices, which allowed me to zero in on the real issue rather than having potentially long-lasting arguments with my appliance suppliers.
Now, a next challenge for Wattwatchers and our software partners is to build in notifications to ensure that consumers like me know there’s a problem developing prior to actual failure.
I also want to explore how Wattwatchers’ demand-side data can help the electricity networks to manage their grids better? Also, why don’t so-called smart meters detect such problems and alert the network operators? (Answer: They ain’t so smart!)
Gavin Dietz is CEO of Australian energy technology company Wattwatchers and formerly was global chief information officer for nearly a decade (2005-2014) with the world’s biggest smart meter manufacturer, Landis+Gyr.