Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When The Lights Go Out

A few months ago I watched that much hyped documentary-style movie on National Geographic channel about a nationwide power grid failure.  I guess it had its intended effect... parts of it made me laugh and parts of it got me thinking about how well prepared my own home and life is should there be a power outage.

NASA Light Image courtesy of howequipmentworks.com

It got me thinking, but not acting.

So Karma, the Universe, perhaps God Himself... took the next step to get my attention.  We had a sudden partial outage in the house.  Derek was downstairs playing one of those fantasy football games and I'd just taken a shower and was getting some pajamas on upstairs when it went black.  Well, it went totally black for me.  I had a sudden thought flash of "did I pay the bill?"  I did.  And the next one isn't due until the 18th.  So it wasn't a matter of getting cut off by Greystone.  I didn't realize there was still some power in the house until I'd carefully felt my way along the wall, out the door, down the hall, into the guest bedroom, opened the closet and found the big flashlight/camp lantern to make my way downstairs.  And yes, by then I was sort of patting myself on the back for not getting hurt or letting dogs out of the bedroom in the pitch black of late evening!

We lost power for what we figured to be half of the house.

I did not know that could even happen.  I thought if the power was out, it was out.

We made some calls looking for help and were asked if we'd had Greystone come look at the line yet.  I hadn't so the gentleman on the phone explained that there are 3 wires in the supply line.  A neutral, or ground wire, and what they call an A and B phase that are both live and supplying electricity to the house.  A and B each carry 120 volts and connect to different sides (or trees - it seems electricians have their own language, too) of the breaker box.  Appliances like your range and dryer that have the higher voltage outlets draw power from both A and B while your other outlets and switches are tied to just one of them.

I wasn't thinking much about getting educated right in the minute, but I do like learning new stuff so this is kind of cool for me to know!

Greystone came and it wasn't their problem.  Darn!

Feeling super burdened from the financial strain it was going to cause we resigned ourselves to calling an electrician in the morning to come replace the whole electrical panel.  The anticipation was that half it had burned out/gone bad/whatever you call it when it no longer works.  The first place said someone would call us back within 30 minutes to schedule.  They never did.  So after my doctor's appointment I stopped at Home Depot and talked to a very nice, very knowledgeable electrical isle associate who not only pulled out a business card for an electrician but went the extra mile and called him to help get things moving.  The first available time was the next morning.

So going into night 2 of our weird power outage... It was a little inconvenient but doable.  One of the dogs followed me into the bathroom (I totally understand where young moms are coming from on the luxury of peeing by yourself!) and tripped over an extension cord Derek had rigged up so I could have a fan at night in the strangely always warm master bedroom.  What's weird isn't that he got a foot caught in the cord, but that when he did the lights flickered back on!  A little more fiddling around and we figured out that something was wrong with the outlet in the master bathroom and that was what was causing the rest of the outage.

I even understand how and why that happens and can briefly explain.  The inside wiring for the house's electric system begins at the breaker box and each light fixture and outlet is part of a "run" of wire from a breaker.  Multiple lights and outlets, frequently in more than one room, are included on a single run.  If one of them develops an issue, everything between the 'issue' and the breaker will still function normally but everything beyond it on that run will be powerless.  The runs in our house, while not technically wrong, are neither what I find logical nor how someone doing it new today would lay things out.

When the electrician, who is completely wonderful and I would highly recommend to anyone in the Atlanta area, came he confirmed that the outlet was bad.  Something with the wiring had come loose, got ungrounded and made the box itself live (1970's house - metal outlet boxes, not the plastic ones they use now and again not technically wrong just different than newly installed products).  He changed the guts out and we had power again.  Until... we didn't.  The suddenly working correctly outlet burned out the breaker.  And then, blam!  Back to no power.  So we called the electrician back and he fixed that, too, at no extra charge.

Anyway, that's the highlights of that little adventure.  And what have I learned?

  • Problems are not always what they seem at first so keep exploring until you get to the source.
  • Fresh batteries in the flashlights is always a good idea!
  • Knowing where they are is also a good idea - that I'd just unpacked the one big one and knew where I'd set it on the closet shelf saved me from feeling my way down the stairs in total blackness.
  • A correctly labeled breaker box is not just aesthetically pleasing.
  • The electrical system to the house is amazingly interesting and I actually want to know more.

A few weeks later another breaker burned out and I was complaining to some friends about how much it was going to hurt to spend another $100 on the electrician and they told me it was an easy DIY to change a breaker.  I went to Youtube and found the tutorial and it is easy!  So we got an $11 breaker.   Yet doing it, we somehow managed to have problems.  From my "research" I knew exactly what to do, but rather than let me, Derek pushed me out of the way and took things a few steps further than was necessary and then touched a needlessly exposed wire while turning the power back on and took a jolt of electricity.  We weren't sure how big of a jolt and since he was feeling strangely in more than just his finger that got zapped he got a quick trip to the Emergency Room to be sure he was ok.  He was.  We over-reacted.

How it should look!  Photo courtesy of wickedhowtos.com.
So what did round two of the great power outage teach me?  Apparently not a whole lot since two of the flashlights had dead batteries and I had no idea where Derek had laid down the third one and that after I did find it an hour later and opened the box we still did not have anything labeled so it was hunt and peck to figure out which one had gone bad (it didn't flip to the off position when it burned out so a label for what part of the house each controls would have been a helpful clue!).  I'm making that one of my upcoming "household organization projects" and I think I'll get another flashlight and attach it to the same wall as the breaker box with just enough cord or small chain so that it's useful there but can't be carried off and laid down elsewhere in the house!  I hope Derek has learned that sometimes I know what I'm doing when it comes to household repairs and that he needs to trust me to do it.  And that going above and beyond, while good for your career, can be detrimental at home and needs to be balanced with knowing when doing just barely enough is plenty.

A couple of months out now... have we acted on any of this new found how-to knowledge?  Nope.  Still tempting fate.

Please, God, don't smite me!

1 comment:

Eleanor Roy said...

Yikes! How unfortunate to have the lights gone out twice in a span of a few weeks. I'm at least glad that the whole event taught you some pretty valuable lessons, Kathy. We should always be prepared for a power outage. I'm also glad to hear that you took the matter into your own hands, instead of spending another 100$ on an electrician. Just make sure to be more careful next time. All the best!

Eleanor Roy @ Douthit Electrical