Software Development
Coding / Energy / Web development

Track power outages with ‘Is PECO Okay,’ a new site from the Philly dev behind ‘Is SEPTA F*cked’

Software engineer Doug Muth says it costs him less than $1/month to chart stats from across the region.

The PECO Building in Center City Philadelphia (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Heat waves bring a surge in energy use, which can lead to power outages. A new dashboard lets you track them as they happen in Philadelphia — and watch how fast electricity is restored.

Ardmore resident Doug Muth built IsPECOokay.com after losing power during a storm.

“PECO’s status page is really good,” Muth said, “but what really got me was trying to do that on my phone in the dark.” The energy company’s page is content and javascript-heavy, he explained, so not the best thing to be refreshing if you’re trying to conserve battery power. 

To address that, he created a version that mirrors the info on the official outage map, but is lightweight and loads fast. 

The site takes anonymized data from across the region and charts it over time. You can follow outage trends over the past 24 hours and see how many of PECO’s nearly 1.7 million customers are impacted at any given moment. 

IsSEPTAFucked.com and the power of local dashboards 

Muth is no stranger to turning public data feeds into useful displays. 

The 47-year-old cybersecurity engineer is probably best known for creating IsSEPTAFucked.com, the much beloved page that gives a blunt assessment of the current state of the region’s public transportation. A snowstorm can push Regional Rail into “Turbo Fucked” status, for example.

The irreverent transit tracker, which debuted in 2012, was supplanted a few years back by a “more professional” and robust (but less amusing) version called SeptaStats.com.

Engineering is about using technology other people built to solve everyday problemsDoug Muth

Muth isn’t sure what SEPTA thought about his prior work, but was excited to show the new tracker to PECO, of which he is a fan. “Their reps are super polite,” he said. “They must treat their people amazingly well.”

The Exelon-owned utility, one of the largest in the nation, seems to be on board — or at least not mad about it.

“While we believe this developer has created an interesting application, we do encourage our customers to utilize the official PECO outage map,” director of communications Greg Smore told Technical.ly. “[It] has several features to help our customers stay informed, track the status of their outage, and more.”

Every day, there’s a mini outage surge

PECO’s map lets customers zoom into the neighborhood level and see clusters of outages, overlay weather conditions, or look at a county-by-county breakdown, among other features. 

Muth’s page is much more direct. Only the number of outages and customers affected are shown, along with 1-hour, 3-hour and 24-hour trends, displayed in boxes above a simple line chart that can show up to a whole day’s activity.

The box showing the current count of customers without power turns from green to yellow to red, depending on the severity of the outage.

“It was a fun little thing, making it color coded,” Muth said. “I kind of loved it.”

Screenshot showing the interface on the Is PECO Okay website

The site’s display updates automatically, showing the latest 24 hours of data (Screenshot)

Since becoming a remote worker who’s home most of the time, Muth has become much more aware of the daily fluctuations. “If power is lost in the middle of the day, I’ll notice it,” he said. “When we had 70 mph winds that took out power for 8 hours, I noticed it.”

During that windstorm four years ago he recalls checking the outage page and seeing around 200,000 customers without power. “By the end of the day it was down to like 80,000,” he said. 

That volume isn’t common. The worst Muth has seen since Is PECO Okay went operational this spring is 24k, during the storm that blew through last week. But he has noticed an interesting trend: Almost every day, even if there are no catastrophic events or notable incidents, outages rise during daylight hours and sink again during the night.

There’s a reason for this, according to PECO — or really, a collection of reasons.

First, there are planned or scheduled outages for maintenance, said Smore, the director of communications, and those usually take place between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Customers are advised in advance.

A bald man with glasses and a smartwatch sits with his hands clasped. He is wearing a black T-shirt and appears to be indoors with a blurred background.

Doug Muth, the creator of Is PECO Okay, at his computer (Danya Henninger/Technical.ly)

Other activity happens during that time frame, too: private contractors completing tree work (where a limb could drop on a line) or municipalities paving or installing equipment like water or sewer lines, which could damage an underground line. 

“There are also more vehicle accidents where a car may strike a pole or a large truck may take down wires, as more people are driving during the daylight hours,” Smore said.

PECO has communication equipment in the field and on its smart meters that automatically detects these outages and adds them to the reporting system, which updates every 10 minutes, he said. Direct reports from customers also feed into the dataset. 

A tracker that covers the region, but costs less than a dollar

Building the page took Muth around four months. A seasoned developer, he could’ve done it much faster, but he set a challenge for himself: The cost to keep it active had to come in under $1 per month.  

That dictated what tools he chose, and forced him to learn new code libraries and APIs and database dynamics. “Tradeoff for building something cheaply,” he said, “is more time.”

For the fellow software nerds, the toolset includes:

  • AWS S3 — Static file hosting
  • AWS Lambda and API gateway — execution of Python scripts to retrieve outage data and serve it up
  • AWS DynamoDB — data storage
  • AWS Cloudfront — HTTPS
  • AWS Certificate Manager — SSL certificates
  • AWS Route 53 — DNS
  • Hugo — static site content
  • Serverless — code deployment and DynamoDB schema management

The whole thing was professional development, Muth said, helping him learn skills that might come in handy at work.

“As a software engineer, knowing systems in depth can help you,” he said. At his day job managing a very large platform, he never knows what could come in handy when troubleshooting. “It behooves you to know all the parts and how they work together. 

That grassroots approach shaped his career, which saw him translate a sysadmin job wrangling “this newfangled language called PHP” to his current role as senior cybersecurity engineer at one of the world’s largest media and technology companies.

What’s Muth’s next project? He was noodling on an outage tracker for other electricity providers — his parents are the kind of people for whom this simple, light-loading page would be useful, he said, and they live in Allentown.

Either way, he’ll likely keep creating tools that help fellow Philadelphians. 

“I hope PECO enjoys viewing this as much as I enjoyed putting it together,” Muth said. “Engineering is about using technology other people built to solve everyday problems.”

Updated 1:45 p.m.

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