Monday, June 30, 2008

Semi-powerless in Cambria

For proof that things frequently aren’t as they seem at first glance, consider our recent electrical glitch.

I was working at my computer at 6:30 a.m. on May 22 when the lights went out.

Or so it seemed.

Yes, it did seem odd that the back-up power supply wasn’t whining, yelling and raising Cain, as it usually does when there’s no power. But I went into the kitchen anyway and grabbed our hard-wired phone to call Pacific Gas & Electric’s outage line. (A non-portable phone that’s directly tied in to AT&T lines works fine during a power outage, unless a falling tree took out the phone lines, too.)

As I dialed (800) 743-5000, I glanced at the coffee counter and saw a nightlight burning as brightly as it ever does.

Had the power gone back on, and I just didn’t notice?

I flipped the pantry’s light switch. Nothing. The refrigerator, toaster and coffeemaker worked, but the microwave oven and stove fan wouldn’t. Same in the living room, where the chandelier and fan worked, but ceiling lights and wall receptacles didn’t.

Husband Richard and I began to panic. Visions of melting wires and shorting circuits danced in our heads. Our former home burned down because of an electrical problem. So we tend to … um … react strongly, shall we say, when power sources are compromised in any way.

Finally, having determined that the off-and-on problem was consistently inconsistent throughout the house, I called our electrician. He promised to check it out.

It was a Thursday, so I wasn’t on deadline for The Cambrian’s weekly edition. But I was working on a story for The Tribune, due that afternoon. And among the powerless items in the house were my trusty portable phones.

Cell phones don’t work at our house under the best of circumstances, so I took my laptop and office chair into the kitchen, set myself up alongside our hard-wired phone and began to call my sources for interviews.

After several hours of that uncomfortable madness, the clock (battery powered) staggered toward noon. I hadn’t yet heard from the electrician, and I was getting increasingly antsy.

Then I heard a truck pulling up. Expecting the electrician, I headed outside. Surprise! It was a PG&E troubleman, driving down our street with a puzzled expression on his face.

Before he could pull away, I ran out to quiz him, asking how our house power could be half-on, half-off, and what we should be doing about it.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “We’ve got a bad trunk line along here somewhere, and I’m trying to track it down,” he continued.

“But. But,” I sputtered. “Half the connections in the house are working. How can the problem be in the power source?”

He tried to explain, but had to rush off to solve the problem. Soon, we had full power again, everywhere.

Later, I called Pete Resler, PG&E spokesman.

He said he’d never heard of that kind of problem before, but checked it out with Mark Srauenheim, distribution superintendent for the San Luis Obispo office.

Resler explained later, as power flows through transmission lines, “it’s at a higher voltage than can be used in your home. So the power goes into a transformer that steps it down to a proper voltage for your house.

When the power comes out of the transformer, it splits into two lines, he said. “Each home (unless it’s a really old house), has two service lines. Sometimes the lines will be in two separate cables, sometimes bundled as two wires in one cable.”

In the case of our neighborhood’s outage, he said, “one of the wires was faulty and you lost half the power to your house,” as did other homes around us.

The lineman “did some troubleshooting on the neighborhood circuit, identified the bad line and fixed it.”

So, if this weird thing ever happens again, I’m still going to call my electrician, just in case. But I will have finished that call to PG&E first, because things often are not as they seem to be, especially when you’re only half lit.

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