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Power failure (bis)

Kohler generator, on a concrete pad in front of the houseIn a previous blog entry called Backup, I described the installation of a backup generator to supply our house in the event of a power outage (it's shown to the left).

Then, a bit over six months later, in an entry called Power failure, I described its first real use in an actual electrical outage. At the end of that entry, I noted, "If that's the only power failure we have, then the cost of that approximately 5½ hours of electricity was awfully high. But if there's a second failure, our cost per outage will be cut in half. We'll see what happens over the next few years."

I didn't have to wait a year. One day before the Fourth of July, nature provided its own fireworks this year in the form of a line of violent thunderstorms that passed across the northeastern states. In the midst of the most violent of the storm cells that passed over Wayland, our power went out, at 10:35 PM Eastern Daylight Time. As before, in eight seconds, the house cut over to generator power.

I've always thought of the generator as a luxury that we can afford in order to make our lives a bit more convenient during power failures, most of which occur in the winter, due to trees heavily loaded with snow toppling onto a power line. But the generator proved particularly useful during this failure, because the failure lasted over 14 hours, and we happened to have five house guests living with us at the time.

Having guests meant, for one thing, that our refrigerator and freezer were quite full. Much of that food would have been lost during a 14+ hour outage, so with this outage, the generator saved some money that we can think of as going towards its rather substantial cost. The generator also saved seven people from being inconvenienced by the outage, instead of just two.

It also saved us from what would have been even greater inconvenience. Three of our guests were staying in our refinished basement, where we have a private "half bath" (that is, a bathroom with a toilet and sink, but no bathtub or shower). And because this room is below grade, all water drained from it has to be lifted by an electrically-powered pump. Loss of electricity would have meant loss of use of the basement toilet and sink, which would have caused everyone to have had to share the upstairs bathroom. Note 1

Top part of NStar outage reportOf course, we initially had no idea what had caused our power to go out, but we did report it to NStar (our power company), using their automated telephone system. And as usual, I went on their web site to get a report on all the outages in the state, to follow their progress in making repairs. You can see to the right what the top part of their report looked like on my smart phone.

The report on the right was actually taken, as you can see, two days after the onset of the outage. But after the enormous line of thunderstorms late in the evening of July 3, and the nearby passage of Hurricane Arthur on July 4, NStar was still dealing with outages mid-day July 5. Scrolling to the bottom of that screen (not shown), they had a total of 2471 customers still out.

After lunch on July 4, I drove out to see if I could determine the source of the outage. I didn't have to go far. Just around the corner, the road was blocked by a large tree, that had taken down our 7,900 volt feeder line. The damage was being worked on by three NStar trucks, including two very large bucket trucks.

As I walked around taking photographs (see below), my cell-phone vibrated. I looked at the message that had just come in, and it turned out to be from my generator, from the Kohler "OnCue" system. It read, "Utility power has been restored to Krakauer Residence". I gave a thumbs-up signal to the NStar utility worked who was lowering himself down from the top of the pole in his bucket. The outage had lasted 14 hours and 15 minutes. Within minutes, two more messages came in, announcing that the house had been switched back to utility power, and the generator had been stopped.

The print edition of the Wayland Town Crier, which we received earlier today (Thursday, July 10, 2014), carried an article with the heading, "Microburst causes major damage". Interim Department of Public Works Director Stephen Kadlik was reported as saying, "It looked like a bomb went off on the north side of Wayland." The article also reported that eight utility poles had been snapped. The worst damage occurred in an area a few kilometers from our house.

The downed tree that caused our outage was a bit outside that area of heavy damage, so it may or may not have been related. Other nearby problems - Route 126 was blocked in front of the Town Library, and electrical crews were still at work there on the morning of July 5. As of the NStar report shown above, 157 Wayland customers were still out of power, out of 5543 total customers in Wayland.

The pictures below show NStar crews at work repairing the damage that caused our outage:

NStar crews at work, with 2 bucket trucks

The image below shows the tree that broke and pulled down the wires. The black area is no doubt rot that weakened the tree and caused it to break at that point.

NStar crews at work, with 2 bucket trucks, buckets up

The generator running for 14+ hours exposed a side-effect of long generator operation that I hadn't thought about:

A withered plant near the generator The generator's natural-gas powered engine is air-cooled. The picture to the right shows some leaves located about 120 cm. (4 feet) from the generator's air outlet grille, which is visible in the background. The leaves belong to some shoots sprouting from a maple tree stump, and as you can see, they are quite withered. They were damaged by 14 hours of hot air blowing out of the generator.

It was interesting to have observed this, because we are planning on adding some plantings, perhaps mountain laurel or rhododendrons, to block the view of the generator from our driveway. Obviously, we now know that it would not be a good idea to plant these too close to the air-output side of the generator.

Over the next few years, I'll record all power outages longer than a few seconds in the chart below, so you'll see lines dated after the date of the original publication of this blog entry, July 10, 2014. The date format used below follows the American convention of month/day/year, and the outage duration is presented in the format days:hours:minutes. Our power company was called "NStar" until February 2015, when it changed its name to "Eversource".

Record of Power Failures
#Start dateTimeDuration Cause
0104/23/1410:23 PM00:05:41 Tree down across Orchard Lane
0207/03/1410:35 PM00:14:15 Tree down across Training Field Road
0307/21/142:09 PM00:03:12 Damaged high voltage equipment, end of Orchard Ln.
0411/28/146:20 PM00:00:03 NStar reported "Tree contacted power line"
0505/31/159:03 AM00:01:03 Eversource: "Tree on power line" (total now > 1 day)
0607/12/1512:37 AM00:00:19 While we slept, unaware of it until the morning
0707/12/154:41 AM00:00:20      ... and another short outage a bit later
0808/04/154:02 PM00:05:31 Massive thunderstorm with large hailstones
0902/05/163:16 PM00:00:04 Heavy snow, 76% of Wayland out Note 2
1002/16/165:15 PM00:04:21 Heavy rainstorm, high winds, tree down
1103/01/162:05 AM00:00:57 While we slept, then power back for 12 minutes ...
1203/01/163:14 AM00:00:25      ... then off again (we were still sleeping)
1310/29/1711:38 PM00:02:39Rainstorm, high winds (20 mos. since previous outage)
1403/04/1804:13 PM00:00:06Brief outage day AFTER a 'bomb cyclone' Note 3
1503/07/1810:17 PM02:12:1220.5 cm heavy wet snow, 2.5 day outage. Note 4
   04:03:08 TOTAL days:hours:minutes

Remember, each time the generator supplies power, my "cost per hour" for the generator goes down!

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#0238   *FAMILY2

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© 2014-2016 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted July 10, 2014
Most recent power failure noted March 10, 2018

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   The original plan for our underground bathroom called for a large pump called an "ejection pump" to be buried under the basement floor. When the builder cut into the concrete floor in the necessary location (a small utility area behind the bathroom), he encountered a massive boulder. An hour of attacking it with a full-sized jackhammer only managed to chip off a small piece.

As a result, the ejection pump was returned, and a different type of system called a "macerator" was used, a physically smaller pump that is located above the basement floor. It has worked very well.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Outage number 9 was due to about 13 cm. (5 inches) of very heavy wet snow, and over three quarters of the Eversource customers in Wayland lost power. However, the outage on our street was very brief, only about four minutes, so apparently the power company was able to quickly isolate the effects of whatever caused it. We were indeed on generator for that brief period. Power was not restored for most Eversource customers until the following day, a Saturday. For quite a few, power was not restored until very late in the day.

This episode made me realize for the first time how much the generator is worth even when it is not needed, as in this case. It makes snow storms such as this very pleasant, knowing that even if there is a power outage, we will suffer no inconvenience. The house won't get cold, we won't have to live by flashlight, we will be able to continue to monitor the weather on our television sets, and we won't lose the contents of our freezer. We can enjoy a nice warm cozy day indoors, watching the snow fall.  [return to text]

Note 3:   The day before this outage saw a 'bomb cyclone', a rain/snow event that hammered the east coast and killed six people. It was mostly a heavy rainstorm for us (5.7cm of rain, = 2.25 inches), with high winds. It knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes from the mid-Atlantic to New England, but our power was not affected (apart from a six-second outage the following day, presumeably while the power company made some connections).

But actually, it was a close call for us. Two days after the storm, a work crew appeared, and started working on a tall pine tree in front of our neighbor's house. About 6 - 8 meters of the top of the tree had broken off in the storm, and fell toward the 7,900 volt line that is the highest wire on the poles along our street. It would have certainly taken out power on the entire lane, and possibly even over a wider area. But its fall was stopped at about a 30 degree angle when it came to rest on the branches of a nearby tree.

The crew needed to remove the broken section without having it touch the live high-voltage line. Working from a large bucket truck, they tied it with ropes on both sides of the high-voltage wire. They shortened the top end by cutting off pieces with a chain saw, and then cut it in half directly above the high-voltage wire. This left one piece hanging on each side of the live wire, and these were then safely lowered to the ground. Finally, working from the top down, they removed the rest of the tree (it had lost most of its branches, and could not have survived). The operation took most of the day.   [return to text]

Note 4:   This was by far the longest outage up to this point, over four times longer than the longest previous outage, the one reported above in this blog entry. After this outage, our total time on the generator was 4 days, 3 hours, 8 minutes, a bit under 100 hours. Thus, the 60.2 hours of this outage accounted for about 60 percent of our total time on generator. Counting the weekly 20-minute self-tests and the engine run time during routine maintenance, the Kohler OnCue.Plus system reports a Total Engine Run Time for the unit of 186.9 hours.   [return to text]

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