When the lights go out, Netflix shuts off mid-movie, the microwave popcorn stops popping and most people don't have kind words to say about their electric company.

It's a feeling Hermiston Energy Services superintendent Nate Rivera can sympathize with.

"We all live in the community," he said of HES employees. "When the power goes out here it's out at our house, too."

However, he pointed out that as annoying as those power failures can be, HES customers are enjoying uninterrupted electricity 99.958 percent of the time.

"Any time you're in that 99.9 percent you're above the curve ... people remember the outages; people don't remember their power was on all that time before," he said.

Rivera said in the past 12 months HES customers have experienced an average of 1.87 outages and 3.6 hours without power per customer. Umatilla Electric Cooperative's District 7, which also covers the Hermiston area, has experienced an average of 2.1 outages per customer but only 3.1 hours without power per customer.

Steve Ferraro, operations manager for Umatilla Electric, said so far in 2014 there have been 93 outages across UEC's 14,000 accounts. Some of those have been as small as one house. That's compared to 375 power failures in 2013, 498 in 2012 and 403 in 2011.

Equipment failure usually accounts for between 25-33 percent of UEC's outages. But Ferraro said the total number of interruptions in a year tends to fluctuate as the company's lines get hit by vehicles, fires, heavy storms and other unpredictable events. In the fall of 2013, for example, a particularly heavy wind storm snapped 54 utility poles in the Butter Creek area and it took 51 hours to get return power to some houses.

Ferraro said UEC has been making improvements in the past couple of years that are contributing to fewer outages.

"We're taking a different approach to tree trimming ... and we're changing out poles and putting heavier wire out," he said.

If residents who commute between Hermiston and Pendleton feel that Hermiston's power goes out more often, they're right. In 2013 Pacific Power had an average of 0.62 outages per customer in Umatilla County, 0.91 outages per customer in Oregon and 1.08 outages per customer in North America.

The average Pacific Power customer in Umatilla County had their power out for 1.4 hours for the entire year, compared to 1.72 hours for all of Pacific Power's Oregon customers and 2 hours for its North American system.

Bill Clemens, regional community manager, said Pacific Power has 20 employees in the Pendleton service center and they are always on call.

"We're working to continually improve our system by upgrading and repairing," he said.

In Milton-Freewater, the city-owned utility company has experienced a total of 2.3 hours of outages in the 2013 fiscal year, averaging less than a minute of power loss per customer in an entire year.

"Because of our size, our linemen are able to spot problems before they occur," superintendent Rick Rambo said in an email. He said when there is a power failure it is most commonly caused by an animal, usually a squirrel.

No where the power goes out, the sooner someone calls about it the sooner an electric company can get a crew out to fix it.

Rivera said Hermiston Energy Services and most other companies don't usually know the power is out until someone calls. If the power is out for only a couple of houses and the owners assume someone else has called about it, they might be waiting a while.

"There are smart meters (that signal when power is out), and they're getting better," Rivera said. "But their cost is quite high and when you have 99.9 percent reliability you have to be able to justify the cost."

He said Hermiston Energy Services has set aside money this year for capital improvements to its underground lines, which are getting "past their useful life" and therefore more prone to problems.

Average hours of power loss

Hermiston Energy Services: Average of 3.6 hours of power loss per customer in past 12 months

Umatilla Electric Cooperative District 7: Average of 3.1 hours of power loss per customer in past 12 months

Pacific Power's Umatilla County service area: Average of 1.4 hours of power loss per customer in 2013

Pacific Power's North American system: Average of 2 hours of power loss per customer in 2013

Milton-Freewater Electric: Average of less than a minute of power loss per customer since July 1, 2013

Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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