You think power outages in your neighborhood are frustrating -- try living at Fallstone.
By its residents' count, the 12-year-old complex of 132 Colonial-style townhouses and condominiums in Rockville has lost power nine times since June.
Some homeowners have taken to stashing candles, flashlights, water and snacks, in case the lights blink out. Resetting digital clocks has become a wearisome routine. The rumble of thunder, high winds or even a light sprinkle will send residents preparing for the worst.
"It doesn't take much -- that's what we say around here," said Mary Lozano, an anthropologist and systems engineer who has lived in the complex for six years.
"It's like living in a third-world country," added her husband, Marc Podnos, a CPA.
Pepco officials said they have responded quickly to each of the outages and had the power restored within a few hours, in most cases. But the anger felt by Fallstone residents reflects a growing tide of criticism against the utility, spiked by a surge of outages over the past eight days caused by a string of storms that bolted through the Washington region.
Since July 24, more than 120,000 Pepco customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the District have been hit with outages, some for longer than three days.
The scattered power failures have left many residents wondering why some areas seem more susceptible to outages than others and why even minor storms can cause them.
Pepco officials mostly blamed trees, saying some neighborhoods have more than others.
"We are always improving the reliability of our transformers and switches," said Pepco spokeswoman Mary-Beth Hutchinson. "But there's no way you can improve your power lines to the point where they can withstand a force of nature like trees coming down."
A look at how electricity is delivered to homes might help explain the situation.
In simple terms, electricity moves along high-voltage transmission lines to substations. There, the voltage is stepped down and carried by distribution lines known as "feeders" to transformers -- those gray metal cylinders near the top of power poles or in metal boxes on the ground for underground lines -- where voltage is brought down further and carried to neighborhood blocks through lateral lines. From there, service lines drop down from the lateral lines into homes and businesses.
During a storm, damage anywhere along the system can mean outages for thousands of customers -- or just a few.
Fallstone residents said they are used to thunderstorms knocking out power every summer. But this summer has been different, they said.
The first outage came June 8 during a mild rainstorm, Podnos recalled. It lasted an hour. Power flickered out again on June 13, 14 and 17. The June 14 outage was the longest, 11 hours, he said. Pepco officials attributed that outage to a tree falling on a line during a heavy storm.
Fallstone residents lost power five times this month, each outage lasting between two and six hours. The latest came Wednesday after a powerful storm.
Nerves in the community began to fray.
Fallstone is fairly new, the power lines are underground and the complex is only a few blocks from White Flint Mall, where the lights always seemed to be on when homes were in the community were dark.
"We bought these battery-powered lanterns that you can recharge," said Wendy Snader Ellman, 36. "They're easier to read by."
Most annoying for Ellman and her husband, the power often seemed to go out just as they were putting their 8-month-old daughter to bed. "The air conditioning would go off, and it would just get so hot she couldn't sleep," Ellman said.
The outages became the number one topic at homeowners association meetings, association President John Fry said. He wrote a letter to Pepco on June 15. A month later, he said, he received a short reply saying the matter had been turned over to the company's reliability services department.
Podnos, meanwhile, volunteered to look into the problem for the association. After the lights went out for the seventh time, on July 8, he called Pepco himself. "It was just a garden variety rainstorm," Podnos said. "That really set me off."
He also contacted Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), whose staff contacted the utility. Since then, Pepco has given Podnos regular updates on repairs. In an e-mail to Denis's office, Pepco attributed the problems to a regulator malfunction on a pole on one occasion, a blown fuse at a substation on another. Wind caused another outage, and a repair crew caused another.
Hutchinson said the problems stem mainly from a feeder that begins a few miles away on Tuckerman Lane, a "very heavily treed area."
"The company has sent people and inspected and made a lot of improvements and trimmed a lot of trees," she said. "We think we've responded with pretty good alacrity."
Fallstone residents are understanding but frustrated.
"We have sympathy for Pepco's task," Fry said, "but it seems like they have to come up with a better answer."