Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The drama of the electrical outage or "On being clueless for 16 years"

This is one of those blog posts I never got out of my head onto the page in December.

When I travel, the night before is a flurry of cleaning and cat-care arrangements. This usually means I'm up until 2am. Sometimes I don't sleep at all, and just sleep on the plane. However over time I've gotten more and more organized, and this time I was pretty proud of the fact that I was going to be done (even to the point of vacuuming every corner of the cat facility before I left) by 10:00 pm. Boarding passes were printed. Instructions were already posted. The dog was already with Debra in Waverly. I finally had it down.

Then I plugged in the vacuum cleaner, turned it on, and all the lights went out.


This same thing had happened twice before--once the day before my winter open house-- and I've always had to call an electrician. Someone would come for $80, poke around, not be able to find anything, but all the wiggling would magically cause the power to come back on. The electrician would shrug, and off he would go.

I ran downstairs to my beautiful shiny circuit box in the barn and flipped all the breakers. Nothing. Only one outlet downstairs, and one upstairs, worked. Everything else was totally dead. I ran into the house and flipped the barn breaker. Nothing. Not a thing. I wiggled things and swore. Nope. No power.

We were in a very warm spell (70s, no less, in December), so heat wasn't a concern at the moment. I grabbed some Christmas lights (I stock up at Christmas so I have them for my porch all year long) and strung them from the working downstairs outlet up the stairs, so someone could see to get up there. I considered stringing them through out the upstairs, but cats love to crunch Christmas lights, and the cats could get near the ceiling most everywhere throughout the facility. So I left a headlamp hung on the door for my cat caretakers, and put an alarm on my phone to remind me to call them in the morning, since I would be in a different time zone.

Needless to say, there was no sleeping before my flight as I scrambled around making sure all was as well as possible. I have great cat caretakers, who are also country folk, and I knew that as long as they came in daylight---and the weather stayed warm---they would work out just fine. And indeed when I called them the next day from St. Louis, they weren't flustered at all, and said if they did have to come after darkness, they would bring their own headlamps, as well.

I called my electrician. He had been out before, so he knew where everything in the barn was. He said he'd take care of the problem the next day.

While at my meeting, one of our IT guys talked about the electrical use at his place. He suggested that to prevent circuits getting blown, I have an electrician put an old-style fuse in as protection. If there were a surge, the fuse (which is cheap) would blow before the breaker (which is expensive) would. Given that my budget is pretty tight and putting in another fuse box probably wasn't an option, I listened with interest and filed it away as "one of those things I'll do when I'm magically rich" ideas.

The first and second day of my trip I kept an eye on the weather via my iPhone. But the second afternoon, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse and the beautiful warm weather was returning to normally winter cold. I texted the cat caretakers...how cold was it, really?

38 degrees F outside. 50 degrees inside. The cat facility would stay at a just-barely-legal warmth for a bit, but soon those outside temperatures would catch up with the indoor ones, and it was right on the line. Worse, the electrician said he could not find anything wrong in the barn. It had to be an issue in the house, and he wouldn't go into the house to mess around until I was there.

So I told my supervisor I had to leave the meeting, and changed my flight.

Now some people might say "Hey, cats have fur, what's the big deal for one day?" The big deal is that it's one thing to perhaps let your pet cat snuggle up in your cold house in the warm blankets on the warm bed for one day, but it's another to to have 12 cold cats -- one in a cage, and all of them in a facility with vinyl floors and bare walls, staring out windows of a place that calls itself a "rescue." If someone were to call out of concern for them, and the temp was below freezing, quite frankly that's outside of the law. What if their water were frozen? Can you imagine the SPCA report? "The water in cages was frozen, and the room was at 28 degrees. The owner had been gone for three days, and there was no one in attendance."

Now, I do have back-up heat for dire emergencies, however it utilizes a flame. And no way could I leave anything with a flame running without someone being there. When I've had to use back-up heat in winter storms, I camp out there. Sometimes my caretakers actually stay at my place, but this was right before Christmas so they were just visiting twice a day. The next alternative was to call my pet sitter (a business--different from my cat caretakers) to have her sit there at $25 a hour and babysit. My bank account couldn't manage that for 36 more hours.

So I came home.

Enter my neighbor, who I learned, when I arrived home, was an electrician! How did I not know this? He was up to the challenge of figuring out what the heck was wrong at a rate I could afford. We flipped and poked, tested wires and moved breakers. He determined that only half of the required power was coming into the barn from the house. But everything in the house box (also fairly new) seemed fine. He moved a bunch of breakers around in the barn so they were on the working side, and hallelujah we had power.

But what was wrong? He said he would call another electrician friend for advice, but he wanted to take a look at how the electric entered the house from the pole, and left the house for the barn. So back we went to the house. Perhaps there was a splice on the roof that had let go?

Finally he gave up, closed up the boxes, and said he'd be back. But right before he walked out, he traced the huge wire bundle from where it entered the house cellar and then said "What the heck is THAT?"

He pointed at an old disconnected electrical box. There were a couple of them in the basement. When old houses are upgraded, new boxes get put in, but often the old boxes just hang there.

Except this one -- no where near the new box-- wasn't disconnected.

He opened it up and started laughing. There were two old traditional fuses, and one had a loose clamp and was blown. Apparently when the new electrical box was put in, the electrician left the old fuse box as a pass-through. The wire came into the house, went to the fuse box, and then the wire went from the old fuse box to the new electrical box.

In other words, my house was set up just as my IT friend had suggested it should be.

My previous outages had probably been due to this fuse getting zapped by a surge and not properly touching its clamp. The miracle of power restoration was probably due to it just getting jolted around during testing and hitting the clamp properly again. This time, I completely blew the fuse.

My neighbor got on the phone and called the local supply to find out if they carried the old fuses in stock. They did, so off he went and came back with four (two for back-ups). He replaced both fuses, tightened the clamp, and check the box closely. And I was back in business.

I've lived in this house for 16 years. Now, it's possible my ex was aware of the fuse box. I don't ever recall it being discussed, nor him looking at it the few times we overloaded a circuit, or when we did some rewiring upstairs. I've had three electricians in here over the years for various things, and none of them have noticed it. And of course my neighbor and I spent a good chunk of time mucking around, and we didn't notice it until he was walking out the door.

So now I know.

Another funny note. While working in the dim light, my neighbor grumbled about how he wished when people put in a box, they would hang a light nearby so an electrician could see what he was doing. When we were closing up the ancient old box with its now-shiny new fuses, I smiled and pointed at the bare bulb that was shining just two feet away from it, blazing away. (my basement is lit by a series of bulbs in a line from one end to the other).

"Look, Frank. There's even a light!"


  1. lol at the light.

    Now that sounds like a very frustrating turn of events, and I don't blame you one bit for heading home early.

  2. That's a great story! I came home tonight tried to flip on the only light in my dining room/living room, it flicked and went out. All five bulbs in the hanging light. Then I couldn't turn the TV on either, or the hall light. But its none of those things, its a wall outlet where something seems loose. If the light goes out, I jiggle that outlet and it comes back on, although nothing is plugged into that outlet and I can't recall ever using it. Tomorrow I'll replace it.

    1. LOL! All I could think when I was writing was that YOU would have found the fuse box immediately. AND fixed it!