19 Mar2014

“Ay, Brownout!”

by Marketman

It’s a phrase I heard way too often as a child, then again in the 1990’s when rotating blackouts affected much of the Philippine archipelago. If news reports are to be believed, it’s a phrase that will be heard regularly in the years to come. But it always bothered me why many Filipinos said “brownout” rather than “blackout”… and as a teen, I used to pose the question, “what’s the difference between a brownout and a blackout?” — and inevitably got all sorts of answers, the best one I recall was that a “brownout is a blackout during the day” and even that plausible sounding definition had me rolling my eyes at the tender age of 10. While on a trip to the U.S. one summer, I was in New York for a massive “blackout” in 1976, and again the discussion about brownouts and blackouts led to inconclusive definitions, and many quizzical looks from Americans who rarely, if ever heard the term “brownouts”. I stopped using the term “brownout” then but didn’t really know why that was right or wrong…

Fast forward to today, and the ease of googling things, and wikipedia has a perfectly credible explanation of the terms brownout and blackout. And I quote:

BROWNOUT — “A brownout is an intentional or unintentional DROP in voltage in an electrical power supply system.”

BLACKOUT — “An intentional or unintentional LOSS in electrical power.”

So now I know. While we most certainly experience both occurrences, it is only technically correct to say “Ay, brownout” when there is a noticeable drop in electrical power (that happens in Nasugbu often and the lights dim and the refrigerators strain to cool their contents), while it is accurate to say “Ay, blackout” when the lights go out along with all the other electrical appliances around you.

Think I am being a bit looney to bring the distinction up in a post? Why not read these links to recent articles in major news sources that obviously don’t know what the definition of a “brownout” really is…

“3-hour brownouts hit part of Metro Manila” Inquirer News
“Brownouts to Continue – VECO” Inquirer News
“Coloma : Rotating brownouts to continue in Mindanao” Manila Bulletin
“Power crisis perils polls; Brownouts hit South…” Cebu Daily News
“Gov’t vows brownout-free summer” Edmonton Filipino Youth Association

You think the editors of those newspapers know what the definition of a “brownout” is?

I try to learn something new every day. :)



  1. Mimi says:

    I always thought brownouts were during daylight and for a short period (say less than an hour) and blackouts are anytime in long stretches of time.

    Mar 19, 2014 | 2:50 pm


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  3. ami says:

    I thought the difference is that brownouts are power outages confined to small areas while blackouts are power outages covering huge areas such as that one time the whole of Luzon plunged into darkness due to one powerplant that was brought down by jellyfish which consequently caused a domino effect on the whole grid.

    This looming power shortage is worrying me because it would have serious effects on our economic growth. It’s bad enough that we have the highest electricity rates in Asia but add to that rolling blackouts then a lot of potential investors would get turned off.

    Mar 19, 2014 | 3:17 pm

  4. Catherine says:

    This is the reason why I plan to live “off the grid” when I retire to the Philippines. The price of eldctricity is so high, I might as well invest in another power source like wind, solar, or geothermal energy. Unfortunately I will have to shoulder all maintenance costs as it isn’t subsidized. But the thought is tempting…

    Mar 19, 2014 | 5:54 pm

  5. Kasseopeia says:

    I learned something new again. Thanks, MM.

    Catherine: living off the grid is something I am saving up for. It is VERY very tempting indeed… :)

    Mar 19, 2014 | 8:36 pm

  6. Monty says:

    If the power loss is sudden and quick, the problem is probably just localized and temporary. If the outage is gradual (ex. the lights dim gradually), then the problem is most likely severe and would take a longer time to resolve. This was explained to me by a friend whose dad worked in Meralco, although I never got the explanation why this was. I always thought that the wider area and longer duration was what characterized a blackout.

    Mar 19, 2014 | 11:15 pm

  7. ab says:

    I think of “brownout” as Filipino English for “blackout”.

    Mar 19, 2014 | 11:47 pm

  8. La Emperor says:

    Funny, two posters ahead of me have the same plan I have in mind. “Baka maging magkakapitbahay tayo”. hahaha nothing wrong with that except how can we post at marketmanila if we’re off the grid. ;)

    I always tell my spouse as long as I have good internet connection, I’m happy to retire as a farmer, partially off the grid.

    And on topic, yeah I grew up with the same concept as per Mimi.

    Mar 20, 2014 | 12:52 am

  9. Ed B. says:

    Supposedly the term brownout originated in WW II. During bombing raids the electric company/companies would lower the voltage on purpose to dim the lights in buildings (and houses) to make them more difficult to identify/see from the air. Because of the lower voltage the light emitted by the bulbs would have a brownish hue. Hence the term brownout. Pinoys, over time, may have lost track of the original meaning of the term, and so ended up using it to pertain to any sort of power/electricity-related aberration.

    Mar 20, 2014 | 12:40 pm

  10. Marketman says:

    Ed B, good one, I like that explanation. And it would have been used appropriately used at that time. But now, it is not accurately used…

    Mar 20, 2014 | 12:52 pm

  11. EJ says:

    Brownout is the Filipino euphemism for blackout, simple as that. ;-)

    Mar 20, 2014 | 6:05 pm

  12. MP says:

    With the alarming power rates, I hope the Houze company (makers of zero energy houses) based in Texas will consider building houses here!

    Mar 20, 2014 | 11:22 pm

  13. Thel from Florida says:

    I’ll go crazy if there’s a brownout or blackout so when we built our Florida retirement home in 2009, we had a “whole house” generator installed (20 kilowatt). It was the best ten thousand dollars we spent–worth every penny.

    Mar 20, 2014 | 11:30 pm

  14. Catherine says:

    La Emperor and kasseopeia: A community off the grid will make the work of maintaining its own power source easier. Just sayin’…

    Mar 21, 2014 | 12:37 am

  15. Getter Dragon 1 says:

    I always thought of ‘brownout’ as one of those words that made it into the American lexicon like ‘boonies’ or ‘boondocks’.

    Mar 21, 2014 | 1:38 am

  16. friedneurons says:

    I’ve lived in California for 24 years, and I’ve never, ever heard anybody refer to a power outage as a “brownout”. Well, not counting Filipinos who are recent immigrants, that is. Most of the time everybody just says “power outage”. Or something like, “Crap, the power went out.” People seem to reserve the word “blackout” for really widespread power outages that affect whole cities or metropolitan areas at one time. So in that sense, I’ve only experienced one blackout in my 24 years here, when the entire western United States (except for a few pockets here and there) lost power sometime in the early 1990s. I forget the reason why.

    Mar 25, 2014 | 3:12 pm


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