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December 2, 2009

Urban infrastructure blues
Posted by Teresa at 11:10 PM * 128 comments

About fifteen minutes ago, we heard a loud blunt noise. All the lights in the building started flickering in synch. I went out in the hall and called to the upstairs neighbors, who said the same thing was happening to them.

I went out to the front porch and watched my neighbors popping up in their doors and windows like so many prairie dogs. Half the block’s streetlights were out. The lights in everyone’s windows were flickering in time with my own. Our neighbor two doors down said everyone’s TV was on the fritz. As I watched, the stoplight up at the corner suddenly flashed in a series of odd patterns, then went out.

Down at the other corner, the intersection was filling with smoke. “What’s with the smoke down at the intersection?” I called out into the darkness. Another neighbor called back that there was a fire in the manhole down there—and so there was; by now the flames were leaping up out of it.

All the lights went out on the eastern end of our block. “We’re screwed,” I remarked to my upstairs neighbor, who by now was also standing on the front steps.

A guy walking up the block told us as he went past that there’d been some kind of explosion below, and that he’d seen the cover blow off the manhole.

I went back inside. No connectivity. Then it came back, but it’s running very slowly, and I don’t know whether it’ll last.

If anyone knows more than we do, please let us know what’s going on.

Comments on Urban infrastructure blues:
#1 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:32 PM:

I trust someone called 9-1-1?

#2 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:32 PM:

Oy. Hope it sorts out okay. We had something like this happen two months after we had a giant ice storm. A tree at the end of the block had been weakened and we had another wind storm. The tree broke and smashed into the block's 'circuit breaker' light pole, rendering it to shreds (Jim walked past it on his way to the bus and said there were bits as small as toothpicks scattered(.

Our power was on within six hours because we had an elderly, machine-dependent patient (they had a generator for his equipment) living on our block. We're a block of houses with an wall of apartment buildings facing out onto Armour protecting us. But our power seems to be be connected behind the apartment buildings.

The shattered tree smashed into the pole that held our transformer and circuit-breaker for our block... (during the ice storm, the only repair we needed was for someone to come reset that breaker, it's done with a large, hooked pole...)

#3 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:35 PM:

BTDT. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it's something easy to route around and fix.

#4 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:37 PM:

Loud noise plus flickering lights = unplug everything of value that might get fried by a surge IM uneducated O.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:37 PM:

There were already firetrucks on the block when I stepped out the front door, so I didn't call.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:39 PM:

Everything of ours is already routed through surge protectors.

#7 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:59 PM:

Teresa, Go You. We have everything that's important on that kind of plug in/surge suppressor. Between having a 1912 house with curious wiring and living in urbia where shit happens, in some ways randomly, this seemed a Very Necessary idea.

#8 ::: cherish ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:37 AM:

Sounds like an underground electrical station blew up. I witnessed an incident like this, with power outage and smoke from below ground, in Seattle several years ago.

#9 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:38 AM:

I wish The Stimulus included a thorough, long-term modernization, hardening, and rendundifying of the power infrastructure.

I read we don't even make power transformers in this country any more.

#10 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:44 AM:

This reminds me of a couple of weeks, when the power went out in part of the house. I grabbed the flashlight, went into the garage accompanied by my wife. While I was looking at the fuse box, trying to figure out which switch to flip, my wife decided on a more random approach. And immediately plunged the whole house in complete darkness. Flipping that switch back had no effect so I had to go ask for the help for our neighbor, who's an electrician.

Yes, I did make fun of my wife after the power came back on.

#11 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:50 AM:

One reasonable possibility is that the insulation on an underground electrical main has broken down or been chewed through.

In most if not all cases, this would result in the formation of a short circuit of high voltage electricity to literal (if not littoral) ground. I've seen pictures of electrical mains cables in these situations where a good deal of the cross section of the conductor was destroyed by high-amperage arcing.

In this model, the lights might well be flickering out when the arc was developed, diverting all the current to the short instead of the household electrical loads, and flickering on if the arc were extinguished, for example by the hot plasma doing the work of conduction in the arc dissipating (by multiple mechanisms).

#12 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:53 AM:

Oh, and the point about the conductor being eaten through is that you can probably expect the power to go off completely on one side of the break in the insulation.

The power will then stay off until the fire department clears the manhole of fire and gasses and ConEd determines that it's possible to enter safely, does so and inspects the damage, and then either splices the cable or (more likely) replaces a fairly long stretch of electrical main.

#13 ::: romsfuulynn ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:01 AM:

Transformers - (no not those kind.)

As I understand these systems, there are automatic failovers, but the failing over is what causes the flickering. The noise and the manhole cover blowing off I'd guess were one exploding, and the in sync flickers were everybody's power switching. The stuff going out was when there was either insufficient power to pick up everything, or additional ones failing. (A deputy fire chief here in Aurora IL got his eyebrows singed off as two manhole covers blew off and he peered down a third one just as it went boom...

#14 ::: Lise Eisenberg ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:08 AM:

I just got off the phone with your local police precinct, after first speaking with Con Ed's emergency call center (whose computer system is down for maintenance every night between 11 PM and 1 AM). According to the officials at the scene, via the police officer who inquired while I waited, your power should be restored "in two to three hours."

I hope your night gets brighter before dawn.

#15 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:21 AM:

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Tim Walters to this thread, in hopes he'll compose an eponymous 12-bar blues song.

#16 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:27 AM:

Urgh. Not good. Power outages are so common out in the sticks where my dear old brown-haired mama lives, that little emergency domestic generators have become an ordinary piece of household equipment. (Last time the culprits were crows, amusing themselves by dropping stuff in the transformer boxes...) But power even in London has been starting to get kind of scuzzy at the edges for the past year at least, and lately there have been several outages in the heart of the West End. This is the sort of thing that causes talk, and tends to set me on edge a bit.

We don't have much spare capacity, over here. We take forever and a day to build new stuff, and everybody and her donkey protest it up hill and down dale when some gets built by accident. And the bean-counters in government and industry unite in their loathing of such obstacles to progress as 'safety margins' and 'redundancy'.

I like the old-time engineering religion. I do not like wailing and gnashing of teeth in the dark. I really hope we get this sorted on both sides of the pond without the need for... shall we say? ... the spur of Embarrassment.

Hope your stuff gets fully fixed soon, and stays so.

#17 ::: Samuel Bierwagen ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:32 AM:

>Another neighbor called back that there was a fire in the manhole down there—and so there was; by now the flames were leaping up out of it.

Winding short, resulting in transformer vault fire. Downtime: maybe a day, depending on the competence and funding level of your local utility company.

That, or a short in the high voltage cables themselves. Downtime: longer, shading to much longer, since you have to clear out the channel and run new cable, and is highly dependent on local conditions.

#18 ::: Samuel Bierwagen ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:34 AM:

And, of course, in the time it took me to type that, three other people said essentially the same thing. Sigh.

#19 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:38 AM:

Well, in the past fortnight, we've had a power outage without a fire (in my village, third this year) and a fire without a power outage (across from my office, but with a plume of smoke visible for miles).

The thing about New York is that you get these things right on top of each other, as with all your amenities. It's frightfully convenient.

#20 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:55 AM:

Linkmeister @ 15: I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Tim Walters to this thread, in hopes he'll compose an eponymous 12-bar blues song.

I looked out my window, smoke rolling down the street
I looked out my window, smoke rolling down the street
It was our infrastructure meeting its defeat

People all wond'rin, what the hell's going on
People all wond'rin, what the hell's going on
Wondering if they'll see any TV till dawn

Lights all a-flick'rin, whole block staying in sync
Lights all a-flick'rin, whole block staying in sync
Fire in the manhole, guess I need a drink

That urban infrastructure, sure is nice when it works
That urban infrastructure, sure is nice when it works
Keeps you comfy till the damn thing goes berzerk

Um, words. Specialty. Not. But I'm flattered to be asked!

#21 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 02:19 AM:

Tim, not bad at all! It's not The Middle-Age Blues, but then they had more time to compose than you did.

We had sewer maintenance most of the past two weeks around here. One of the odder things I saw them do: they paved over all the manhole covers, marked the locations with flags, and came back and cut out the newly-dried asphalt around the covers a week later. I suppose that was the fastest way to get the street paved, but it struck me as less than ideal.

#22 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 03:05 AM:

Samuel, I like it when other people leave similar comments to mine, either before or after I get done composing and post.

When it happens, it reassures me that either my thinking about the issue is reasonable and balanced or that others share my delusions. The latter thought is at least comforting, if not particularly optimistic.

#23 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 03:06 AM:

Could have been worse.

AKA "Where were you when the sewers blew?" in Louisville and surrounding areas.

#24 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 03:46 AM:

Surge supressors can get damaged by a surge.

Well, that's the advice I had. And is buried in the Wikipedia article, with more technical variations than I was aware of. (But somewhat US-centric.)

Anyway. some flurospherian can, no doubt, provide more detailed advice.

(You can get cheap LED flashlights that have a USB connector for recharging.)

#25 ::: Mike Bakula ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 05:52 AM:

Dave Bell writes
"Surge supressors can get damaged by a surge."

and he's right. This is particularly true of cheap surge suppressors in power strips. When I was working for a dorm-network company, we'd lose hardware all the time in our Florida sites that "were on surge protectors". The power strips usually worked the first time, but the power strips would fail on the second event, killing the equipment.

When I moved to Florida, I did some research, and bought a number of Brick Wall surge suppressors. Unlike most units that use Metal-Oxide Varistors (MOV's), Brick Walls are essentially large low-pass RLC filters. I'm mentioning them by name, because I'm not aware of anyone else doing this for home use.

Their website has actual test data that convinced me.

In any case, check that the surge suppressors you have are still working -- some of them have LED's to indicate if the MOV's have failed.

#26 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 06:10 AM:

Down here in the South we get regular brownouts and occasional blackouts in the summer. How much damage does this do to our surge protectors? Would a UPS be a good investment to protect sensitive electronics?

#27 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 06:37 AM:

In any case, check that the surge suppressors you have are still working -- some of them have LED's to indicate if the MOV's have failed.

And if they don't have an indicator, they have, for all intents, stopped being surge suppressors. MOVs don't last forever, and other components are designed to be sacrificial -- and if there's nothing to tell you if they've failed, you have to assume that they have.

Note: They can be useful as outlet strips, but mark them so that you know they're not going to protect you anymore.

#28 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 06:54 AM:

Bob Webber @ 12... the conductor being eaten through

There was a scene like in Guillermo del Toro's "Mimic", I think. New York's subway has become quite dangerous since I was there in the 1980s.

#29 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 06:55 AM:

Dave Bell @ 24... Surge supressors can get damaged by a surge.


#30 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 07:03 AM:

Note that there ain't no power in the 'Verse can suppress a Serge.

I know; our skinhead death metal sysadmin with fangs is also named Serge, and neither one of you seem at all suppressible.

#31 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 07:50 AM:

abi @ 30...

"Their clientele is all anorexic models and Eurotrash named 'Serge'."
- heard on Law & Order: Criminal Intent

#32 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 09:03 AM:

Doh. Hope it sorts itself out. I saw the transformer across from me blow up about a year ago during a storm. Great light show but no lights for an hour.

#33 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 09:56 AM:

We had a home surge unit put in last year by an electrician. This seemed like a reasonable investment given our electronics, even though most of our computer time is spent on laptops these days (which are often unplugged, and are easily unplugged during a storm). Our power around here is irritatingly lousy--flickering lights are pretty common during storms and recently even during long rainy spells.

I guess this is the suburban infrastructure blues? (The wires go through too many trees, and nobody wants to cut down any trees because then the blight of soulless strip malls and endless townhouse developments will become visible.)

#34 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:14 AM:

This happened on the block I grew up on on a regular basis. In the warmer months, it was generally because something had chewed something. In the winter and early spring, it was because of snowmelt runoff--more to the point, because of the chemicals the various apartment buildings use to melt snow and ice off sidewalks. Our apartment had the view over the street and we were entertained by the exploding manhole once a year or so. One time the manhole cover literally blew off! It was exciting.

It seems to happen less these days.

As you've discovered, not a huge deal.

Con Ed has been doing some sort of major work in my nabe the last couple of months, working their way along a main street. It's not at all uncommon to suddenly be hit by a very cold breeze and realize it's because the liquid nitrogen truck is parked up the block. I think they're done now--last weekend they reached Queens Blvd. and so far they haven't rematerialized on the other side of the thoroughfare.

#35 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:18 AM:

The [brand-name] surge suppressor I favor has both MOVs and what, translating from Engineerspeak, sounds like RLC circuitry. It isn't cheap, but it's very solid.

#36 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:20 AM:

Fragano (26): My parents, in Atlanta, bought a UPS for their computer on my advice, because their power frequently flickers or goes out entirely. When I was a kid (same house), the transformer at the end of the block was hit by lightning almost every thunderstorm, so we lost power fairly often. I think it's better now, but I'm rarely there in the summer.

#37 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:22 AM:

Well, here in Maryland trees is what you're going to get unless you keep cutting them down. Recent (that is, post-1970 or so) development has buried utilities, which are better at avoiding storm damage (and easier on the eyes) but which are a bear to repair when there's line damage.

Our problem (besides the trees) is that we are at the edge of PEPCO's service area; BG&E starts about half a mile up the road. We're also in essentially a large cul-de-sac, so there's one feeder for the whole neighborhood. We've had two episodes of two/three day outages, and at least two transformers on the street have blown up. The flip side for us, at least, is that PEPCO's reporting/monitoring is pretty slick, at least if you have a phone and an internet connection.

#38 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:38 AM:

I bought a UPS/surge protector (APC brand) last year, after way too many sudden reboots from Charlottesville's flickering power. I rarely had that problem back in NYC, or in Boston.

Annoyingly, only half of the 8 outlets have battery backup, though they all have surge protection. (And I can see the difference, because my monitor is on one of the SP-only outlets -- it still goes out when the power flickers.)

#39 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:49 AM:

The problem with trees and overhead powerlines isn't that they're both there, it's that the trees need regular pruning to keep them from getting too friendly with the wires.

(Saw a pine tree burning once, from rubbing against powerlines. It got whacked regularly after that, to keep it from interfering with the wires. It was about 30 feet tall at the time.)

#40 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 11:04 AM:

Lee, holy Sh!t! re: Louisville. Something like that happened in Hutchinson, KS in 2001

caused by natural gas. I am guessing it made the salt mine folks really nervous.

Also, transformers are kind of pretty when they explode at night.

#41 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 11:19 AM:

Ah, the Power Outage Tango...

We had a house surge protector installed after the mowing crew accidentally disconnected the house ground wire (I suspect it was weed-whacked). We found out about the loss of the ground when we had a surge and every appliance in the house lit up like a Christmas tree. The only things that survived were the computer and TV, cable box and DVD player. THEY were on a surge protector (Belkin).

If it had a motherboard, it died -- we had to have the washer/drier boards replaced, and had to buy a new microwave oven and coffee maker*.

Last year the transformer behind our neighbors house took a direct hit from lighting -- they lost all their electronics. When I went down to check on our house SP it was still serene and green...the electrician told us if the light showed red it would need to be replaced.

*I will never buy another coffee maker that has a clock...

#42 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 11:42 AM:

My first thought on reading this was transformer fire down a manhole. Whatever it was, I hope everyone is all right and you get decent service back soon.

A description of a high-voltage arc through the air. The linked video isn't there any more, but I found a copy of it here. Very impressive.

#43 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 11:42 AM:

Lori Coulson @ 41... I will never buy another coffee maker that has a clock

Because of the daily grind?

#44 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:20 PM:

re 41: That's part of the reason that the washer, dryer, and microwave all have mechanical timers in them. We've recently "upgraded" the coffee maker from a Melitta-over-a-Thermos-pump to a Mr. Coffee whose entire electronic control is an on-off switch.

#45 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:31 PM:

What? But I thought exploding manhole covers were a common, everyday occurrence in NYC?

Transformer fires are too mundane. I want giant albino alligators involved somehow, dammit!

#46 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 12:41 PM:

Mary Aileen #36: Thanks.

Anent house surge protectors, which I'm seeing mentioned. How much do they cost?

#47 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:18 PM:

Fragano @46: Our whole house surge protector was $600 including installation.

Serge @43: Ha-ha -- no it's because anything with a clock/timer has a tiny motherboard brain. I'll be damned if I'm going to put my countertop appliances on surge protectors, they eat enough space already. If I can't get it with a simple on/off switch, then I don't need it.

Re: transformers -- one summer the neighborhood I was living in had a tranformer explode every Sunday morning between 9am-10am for six weeks running...apparently the local squirrels were attempting to set up housekeeping inside the transformer box. Result: fast-fried squirrel and 3-6 hour outtage -- and NO morning coffee. Grumble.

#48 ::: Edgar lo Siento ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:18 PM:

I really liked that Louisville story, but you should have quoted the best part:
The destroyed section of Hill Street became an open trench as crews cleared away the debris and prepared to replace the sewer line. The stench from the trench, which remained open all summer, was so bad that the MSD used huge blocks of restroom deodorant to mask the odor. It did not work.

#49 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:19 PM:

Up here in the Santa Cruz mountains (Boulder Creek), we're off the grid an average of 3-4 days a year, usually in the winter. ("Day" meaning 24 hours without power.) It's a regional tradition to have massive neighborhood barbecues during such outages to prevent food spoilage loss.

One of our first expenditures on moving to our present house was a 10kW automatic standby generator that runs off natural gas. Power failures now only last about 10 seconds. My wife originally viewed the not-inconsiderable expense as Y-chromosome tribute. After the first multi-day power failure, she changed her mind.

The next step is to add a propane tank so that when the big one hits (we're about 10 miles from the San Andreas fault) and the natural gas goes off, we can keep on running.

#51 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:25 PM:

Dave Trowbridge @49: We're talking about doing that, right now the budget won't bear it. We were without power for a week last year when the remnants of Hurricane Ike came through. Usually a dying hurricane brings rain to Central Ohio -- but not this time, we got High Winds.

Ike knocked down trees, took out power lines, basically crippled most of Columbus -- we had powerline crews from places I've only read about in the paper. And we cheered them every time we saw them.

I don't want to think about a week-long outtage in the winter. A natural gas powered generator is at the top of our list of home improvements, as soon as we can afford it.

#52 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:28 PM:

UPSs are nice, but the batteries are a consumable. It would be really nice to find a way around that.

#53 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:40 PM:

Bruce Arthurs @45:

Transformer fires are too mundane. I want giant albino alligators involved somehow, dammit!

What do you think started the fire? Probably one of them got a little too ambitious in his experimental attempts to re-animate an army of zombie giant albino alligators. If it hadn't been for the fire, something a lot scarier than smoke might have started coming out of the manholes!

#54 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:40 PM:

BTW, if you want to see what a trainwreck the pop culturites can perpetrate in Wikipedia, look under this, especially in the discussion section.

#55 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:51 PM:

We get power outages in the winter, a few years ago it was 88% uptime in one month due to a succession of storms followed by 2-3 day outages. At the time, we had propane heat and a propane on demand water heater, and since it was winter, the freezer was fine for a couple of days where ambient was ~ freezing.

Since we've moved and bought a generator, the longest outage has been 4 or 5 hours. We'll not have hot water, but we use wood for heat, so at least that's covered.

It's the people with electric heat that worry me.

#56 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:54 PM:

re 52: The batteries are necessary because generators produce big spikes on start-up. At UMCP back in my day (30 years back) the two big Univacs had UPSs featuring a big diesel-powered generator for each. The problem was that the battery section had gotten tired, so that it didn't isolate the CPUs from the generator adequately. Therefore the power would go off, the generator would kick in, and the machine would immediately crash. It was all a bit pointless by that date anyway, because none of the hundred-odd Decwriters in the building was on the UPS power circuit.

Also, Lead-acid is not a bad technology for this, and it's quite recyclable.

#57 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 01:58 PM:

Here in Boston, the weather has been abnormally weird today. Solid black skies, a deluge of rain, and 60 MPH winds at 7 AM. Clear blue skies, bright sun, and 65 degree temperatures at 8 AM.

I guess Frodo was able to destroy the Ring ...

#58 ::: Lindsay ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 02:13 PM:

I just heard two really really loud booms as I was walking back from lunch about 30-40 minutes ago in Midtown. Sounded like they were coming from Downtown. Anyone else hear them?! They really scared me and everyone else on the streets (at 5th and Spring).

#59 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 02:36 PM:

Lori Coulson @ 47... fast-fried squirrel and 3-6 hour outtage -- and NO morning coffee. Grumble.

Dare I say that it left you feeling squirrely?

#60 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 03:14 PM:

My folks were without power for three days a few weeks back, after a nor'easter. Sent their already ancient and in poor repair computer into a death spiral and took out their modem. Not to mention the food in the freezer and fridge.

But infrastructure repairs are just too expensive and better left to private entrepreneurs, etc., insert your favorite glibertarian talking points.

#61 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 03:48 PM:

In the great 1998 ice storm (see scary picture of squashed power pylon here) CN took three old locomotives and drove them, off rail, into various towns to power the local grid (one of them wasn't actually used). After the power was restored they just cut them up in place (and repaved the street).

#62 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 04:20 PM:

Serge, by week three of the squirrel suicide Summer Sunday serial, I was ready to get a gun and go hunt the little furry tree-rats myself.

You'd have thought the creatures were punching a timeclock -- Sunday, 9:45am, climb into transformer box, start building nest, create a circuit where no circuit should be...BOOM!

By week four, I'd picked up a stove-top percolator so I WAS getting my morning coffee (what can I say, I'm a slow learner or an optimist). I never did get the chance to talk to the electric company crew who had to come out and fix the transformer. Would have liked to hear their take on it.

Then there was the tree trimming crew this summer whose newest member hit the transformer out back with his chain saw...

#63 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 04:58 PM:

Lori Coulson: My husband had the same problem growing up— fast-fried squirrel on a regular basis.

My house has underground power, a big plus, especially as the lines run right next to the driveway and aren't a landscaping hazard. (Same with the gas and sewer; one might think they planned their placement intelligently.) I grew up in a house with overhead lines and the only good thing about it was the tree-trimming crews when the maple was dying. "Where would you like us to cut it back to?" "Can you cut it back to the ground?" "Okay, sure!" Free tree removal, because it was under the lines.

#64 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 04:59 PM:


ConEd's outage map isn't showing anything in your neighborhood, so either they think it's fixed or they're waiting on more information (like a repair estimate) before displaying it.

In my neighborhood we tend to have occasional momentary dips in power, plus longer storm-related outages in season. And as I reported a while back, our house was having brownouts and blackouts all by itself until we found and fixed the bad service connection some repairperson left us with.

So I invested in 3 UPSs sometime back. I put one on Eva's desktop computer and her backup drives, one on my desk where I usually use my laptop (primarily to protect the displays and my tablet, and to keep them going for short periods when the power goes) and one where the phone line comes in to the kitchen to power the DSL modem/router, the wireless base station, and the mirror RAID drive that backups the laptop over wifi. It also powers the wireless phone, so we have a landline we can use if the power's out AND cellular service is disrupted. I have an old line-powered phone stored in a drawer there that I bought years ago for use in power-outages, but I've never had to use it.

As you might guess, I'm concerned about the possibility of a power surge or outage while I'm running backups, since that can leave both the primary and the backup drive damaged.

#65 ::: Rick York ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 05:19 PM:

Many years ago my ex and I were living in Brooklyn. This was in the bad old days in the early 1970's when the city decided to save money by not doing any maintenance, "deferring" in instead.

We were having dinner with friends in Brooklyn Heights when there was an explosion. We all went to the door and watched several man-hole covers blown off along a two block stretch. Apparently, some gas (sewer, natural?) leaked into the pipes. Then the insulation broke on a power line igniting the gas in the pipe for several blocks.

ConEd took a day to repair it. Ah, for the good old days.

I have often heard civil engineer friends say that "deferred maintenance" are the ugliest words they hear.

#66 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 05:35 PM:

Lori Coulson #47: Thanks.

#67 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 06:38 PM:

Lori Coulson @ 62... Just the other day, my wife mentionned that she doesn't see squirrels in our backyard anymore, in spite of the seeds that fall off the bird feeder. No transformer would be involved, either a Decepticon or an Autobot. We have something even more dangerous: Agatha the Cat Genius, decimator of doves.

#68 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 06:45 PM:

About ten years ago, the holder for a main power line coming into our small city cracked and broke, dropping the line. Our power was off for three days -- the condo's temperature didn't change and I safely stored food in a cooler on a shaded outside porch -- and then back on. Turned out the holder had a flaw and the maker would have to pay us back, which was good.

The city put in a way to reroute power no matter where it started to go out, so I haven't had a loss of power since then. Comcast, now, they like to drop the signal.

We do get news of manhole explosions from DC all the time.

#69 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 10:38 PM:

Lori @ #41, I had a co-worker at job long ago who's house and her parent's house were almost at the base of some kind of steel tower (communications or power or whatever). This was in the late 80s.

The tower took a major lightning strike. Both of their houses took major damage. Her parents' house was closer and she said nails had been driven out of the walls by the force. And everything both households had that were connected to electricity were pretty much destroyed, as was the wiring in their houses.

#70 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 11:25 PM:

Back when we lived in San Remote, my wife woke me up in a panic one morning about 4am "Which way is Livermore Labs?!?" "Thataway" (southeast-ish) "You're sure? It's not over *there*?" pointing at evil end-of-the-world octarine-colored glow in the northeastish sky "No, but that's sure ugly-looking." I forget if we called somebody or listened to the radio or what, but it turned out a power station had blown up about 10 miles away.

And in August 1996, I was working on the computer one Saturday when the modem dropped (remember modems?), so I went out to the room with the blue ceiling and found that all the stoplights were out, and the car radio said the whole West Coast had lost power. My wife was out of town, and friends were having their annual summer all-weekend filk&bbq party, which seemed like a much better place to be than home with candles - and we'd get a great view of the meteor shower because it would be Really Dark in the entire Bay Area. Well, it turned out that San Francisco and their town, Fremont, get their power from the Hetch Hetchy Dam, so they had electricity and bright street lights, but it was still a good party.

#71 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 11:34 PM:

Lee and Louisville: could be even worse, like the explosion hereabouts in 1968 that killed 41 people about seven blocks from The House. Gas explosion, followed by a secondary gunpowder explosion thanks to the gas explosion being under the sporting goods store. (A detail I hadn't known until looking it up just now.)

This town has really been through a lot, when I think about it.

#72 ::: Elyse ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 12:13 AM:

If you live in an area that gets lightning, when you put things on surge suppressors, don't forget any phone and coax lines that come into your house. I once had a lightning near-miss take out my phone answering machine, my modem, about half my A/V stack, and my Kitchenaid mixer. Everything that died (except the mixer) was on surge suppressors for the power lines, and all of the components that died had phone line or coax connections.

Since then, I buy suppressors that also handle coax and/or phone lines, and I put them on the TV and stereo equipment as well as the computer stuff. I use mid-range APC and Tripplite gear for the A/V components. The big computer and network gear are all on a huge business grade UPS to bridge short outages -- having the computers working and the DSL modem and routers dead is annoying.

In recent years I have also had a whole-house surge suppressor. That only handles the power lines, so I would still want the smaller suppressors to handle phone and coax lines, but it should help keep my modern kitchen appliances alive.

#73 ::: truth is life ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 12:48 AM:

@51: Oh yeah, Ike was nasty. I've lived in Houston practically my whole life, and so was basically at (US) Ground Zero (of course, Galveston, Bolivar et. al. were much worse off, but then they *are* barrier islands/directly on the coast). In fact, we were actually pretty happy that the storm turned just before it hit; we were looking at being the upper-left quadrant (the worst) or taking a direct eye hit. Power was out for weeks in some areas, and I'm pretty sure it took well over a week for my parent's house to get power back (incidentally proving that some tropical fish species have a very large hardiness to bad water).

Ike was very much like the famous (around here) 1900 hurricane (a Cat-2 hurricane with a *very* powerful surge), so I'm not surprised Columbus had problems (that one was so powerful it killed some people and did damage in New York and off Newfoundland)

#74 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 10:50 AM:

I had great power for many years, living down the street from a main power switching station. Come 1994, Northridge quake, said power switching station was less than a mile from ground zero. Several 9-ton power transformers walked off their pads and fell over. (So who bolts down 9-ton transformers?) I got UPSs for just about everything 'cept the toaster, because I got tired of rebooting, resetting clocks, and other annoyances at least once a week.

Altho having several UPS alarms go off in the middle of the night, sometimes accompanied by an aftershock, will either turn one into a twitchy wreck in short order, or seriously improve one's ability to say "mfff", roll over and go back to sleep.

#75 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 11:31 AM:

I had great power for many years sounds like the beginning of an ousted dictator's memoirs.

Just sayin'.

#76 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 11:40 AM:

When I was living in Greensboro, NC, most of the city lost power one night. This meant all traffic lights were out. Not flashing; dark.

This was when I learned that most people regard a dark traffic signal to mean "I have the right of way, hooray, time to accelerate!" And that many intersections are totally non-navigable without the assistance of traffic signals or someone directing traffic. I did not find anyone directing traffic, though I didn't drive over the whole city or anything. I imagine they were busy at the huge eight-lane highway-and-mall intersections.

(I can't recall now why I was driving in the first place, but I wouldn't have done it without a good reason.)

#77 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 01:45 PM:

Lori Coulson... I was wrong about the absence of cute rodents in our backyard. Agatha the Cat Genius turned one into a meal this morning.

#78 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 01:46 PM: it wasn't so cute by the time you saw it.

#79 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 01:58 PM:

Xopher @ 78... My wife called to tell me about it and she didn't stay to see the literally gory details. The chipmunk was still alive and she tried to make Agatha let it go, but our feline had other ideas. A few weeks ago, Agatha came back with a mouse's tail sticking out of her mouth. When I grabbed her, the rest of the mouse fell out and promptly scampered away.

#80 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 03:05 PM:

Lin@74, I actually have to reboot my toaster oven a couple of times a week... For some reason, it'll spontaneously start beeping to say the toast is done, and I have to turn it on and off again to get it to be quiet.

Caroline@76, I was once in Los Angeles when a power failure took out about a quarter of the stoplights in the city, along with lots of flooding from the accompanying rainstorm. Unlike your experience in Greensboro, just about everybody drove much better than usual, stopping at the intersections, looking around, and taking turns about who went next. It was a bit slower, since everybody had to stop more often, but it was basically problem-free. Given how bad typical LA drivers are, it was a very pleasant surprise.

#81 ::: Throwmearope ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 03:52 PM:

Fragano @ 26

If you buy what I call in my uneducated way a back up battery, you should replace it every year. The company I use recycles the old ones somehow.

My back up battery caught fire and did an amazing job of toasting my server and my back up hard drive (both were a total loss--lost about 6 years of data).

Every year at Christmas, I gift myself a new back up battery for the server.

#82 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 04:03 PM:

Serge, my family includes five cats and three dogs, plus a feral cat that we have provided a "feral villa" for in the back yard.

Of the five indoor cats, only two have any hunting experience. The feral cat, Fortune, is a boddhisattva -- he watches the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks but pursues none of them.

The last time a mouse got inside the house one of the youngest cats (Tealc) ran along side of it but made no attempt to catch it. Our elderly female Siamese (Kitsumi) grabbed it and dispatched it in 5 seconds...then proceeded to play toss-the-body. Ugh!

#83 ::: Zelda ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 04:19 PM:

Bill Stewart @80: You're probably neglecting your toaster. The purpose of its existence is serving you toast. If you don't start making it feel useful, it will start following you around the spaceship to nag.

#84 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 04:22 PM:

Bill Stewart (80): I actually have to reboot my toaster oven

Proof that we really *are* living in the future. (To quote xkcd, "Holy crap, it's the 21st century!")

#85 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 06:25 PM:

Bill Stewart @ 80 -- I hope it's not giving the "toast done!" sound because it's reached the end of a spontaneously-initiated "cook toast!" cycle. That would potentially be quite dangerous.

I've got a recipe for a cherry pound cake, notable for being so accomodating of goofs and glitches that both of the times my oven has spontaneously switched into self-clean mode while baking the cake, the cake has been recovered in mostly-edible condition.

#86 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 06:54 PM:

Joel @ #85, "the cake has been recovered in mostly-edible condition"

And cleaner, too!

#87 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 07:22 PM:

For some time now, I notice that I subconsciously walk or bike around manhole covers rather than right over them. Now I know why...

#88 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 08:35 PM:

When I mentioned DC manholes in #68, I didn't know that yesterday, men working in a DC manhole had talked with some teenagers, and one of the Pepco workers was shot by one of the teenagers. More danger, different direction.

#89 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 08:46 PM:

Our experiences in the "fun with electricity" category are many, ranging from a period when power company surges were so common that we had the claim forms on hand when it was time to trek down to the power company office and file for replacements on the equipment most recently killed, to our very own neutral fault. We were awakened early one morning by the sound of many household objects blowing up simultaneously. These were mostly lighting fixtures, since after our first experience with power company surges, we put everything we could on surge protectors. The explosions were followed by rapid flickering of all surviving lights from VERY BRIGHT to verydim and back. It turned out that the insulation had worn off our incoming power cable after years of rubbing against a tree, and the wind was blowing it against and away from the (uninsulated) neutral cable, so our power supply fluctuated rapidly between 0 and 240 volts. one of our surge protectors caught fire. Afterward it functioned as an extension cord, and the dramatic scorch marks warned people not to rely on it to prevent appliance damage.

Another great experience occurred during a major outage that affected most of western Oregon a couple of years ago. I watched with a friend from his large window on top of a hill as, in the valley below, transformer after transformer blew up. It was beautiful. "phoon!" "There goes another one!"

#90 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 11:28 PM:

I just recalled one of our household electrical oddities. One day, before we got the breaker box put in, my wife called me at the office the tell me that half the lights in the house were dim-- but only half. While we were on the phone, the dim lights went out. Suddenly I realized what was going on, and asked her, "did the dryer just stop?" Indeed it had. What had happened was that one of the main fuses blew; the dryer, however, provided a circuit from one main bus to the other, so that the half with the blown fuse was still hot, but at a lower voltage. When the dryer stopped, it broke the circuit.

#91 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2009, 12:40 AM:

C. Wingate: nice telephone call; by "call" I mean ruling, pronouncement, estimate, or general diagnosis.

I doubt that I would have caught that without at least my being present on the spot to notice the sound of the dryer running. Presumably an electric oven or hot water heater would make the pattern of dimming more prolonged and perhaps more alarming. Both at once would get some folks worrying about poltergeists or electrogeists or some such.

#92 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2009, 04:22 PM:

Lori Coulson @ 82... Here is a photo of my family's two killers of cute rodents.

#93 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2009, 04:26 PM:

Throwmearope #81: Just the battery, not the whole device?

#94 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2009, 06:16 PM:

Infrastructure; I just got angry enough about paying for ADSL2+ and getting 50 or so kbps uplink and 400-500 downlink, in deep London, that I stripped down my phone socket to see what gave. I found a gaggle of horrible old unused/disused wiring, and a fearsomely sophisticated 1980s alarm system belonging to my landlady that has been on but inactive for as long as I've been here, but is still hooked up to the PSTN.

Obviously, as the modem negotiates to anywhere between 350/1200 kbps up and 5500/9200 down (higher figures after I disconnected the two wires, stripped the ends, and retightened, all in flagrant violation of the BT Group plc terms of service, BT Group Network Standards, and probably the Terrorism Act), there's a packet loss issue and my wireshark analysis confirmed it. I suspected the alarm system of generating noise on the line - apparently the firm that listened to it has long since stopped, but it's possible it was still yelling "CALL SERVICE ENGINEER" or maybe even "CALL COPS" to an unhearing AXE-10.

Not without concern as to whether it might trigger the siren, or possibly start begging ("Dave! You're doing something to my mind!"), I isolated the thing (again violating the BT ToS and all that other stuff). But no improvement.

Next stop - try new filter. If that fails, call BT steam-voice tech support, because there's audible interference on voice and they will answer. Failing that, my one-man ISP will have to raise it with BT-Openreach.

But one day, we should be able to watch YouTube vids. I was thinking the other day that I'd somehow eliminated video and especially streaming video from my Internet diet; of course, I'd re-adapted to the environment of 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, I've got tool-using rodents. The squirrels have learned to sabotage the squirrel-proofed bird feeder by dropping it from a height; one of them got cut down from its branch and burst open at the top today. How soon will they get the Bomb?

Like a lot of people in London, I also have foxes. I was hoping they might kill the squirrels. But I think they're in league...

#95 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2009, 07:30 PM:

Bill Stewart, #80, is this a DeLonghi? I bought a great Black & Decker toaster oven 18 years ago when I bought the condo and it died last summer. From reading Amazon reviews, I found out that a Chinese company makes almost all the toaster ovens now (the three knob variety), even though they have other company names on them and that they don't work well. So I paid a bit more for the DeLonghi and I like it a lot. I haven't had any problems with having to reboot it, though.

#96 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2009, 07:54 PM:

So... what did happen?

#97 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2009, 01:04 AM:

The county admin building in Seattle used to be called Spellman's Eggcrate because county exec Spellman rammed it down the appropriate throats and the design looked vaguely like eggboxes. When it was opened for use it was found that a whole series of electrical plug-ins had been wired for 220v. This meant that whenever the secretaries plugged in their new Selectric typewriters in the misswired areas the Selectric would explode when switched on. This is, by the way, the same building that Dave Barry wrote about that had a high-pressure air hose accidentally hooked to the sewer line, which resulted in a large number of attorneys covered in nasty stuff when they flushed in the bathrooms. The only saving grace was none of the attorneys had a Selectric in with them...

#98 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2009, 01:19 AM:

That sounds like it might be the same architect who did the Caltrans building in downtown LA. They put perforated sunscreens on the outside of the windows, but left no way to clean the outside of the window glass.

#99 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2009, 11:16 PM:

Weirdness here this morning. At about 9-9:30 I was laying in bed deciding if I needed to get up Right Now and my small fan went off (it is my 'white noise' machine, low-tech).

That got my feet on the floor. As I was figuring it out, the alarm system gave the 'I'm restarting" bleep and everything came back on. As well as the fan.

It wasn't long enough to cause the stove and microwave clocks to flash. Margene's alarm clock was another thing. Since I am not familiar with it, I'm not touching it. They'll be home tomorrow after a weekend at Smofcon so they'll need distractions.

#100 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 09:17 AM:

According to local public radio, there was a small earthquake (3.2) in Deepstep, Georgia yesterday. (That's between Milledgeville and Sandersville for those who know the area.) No injuries or damage, just a lot of 911 calls from scared people.

#101 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 01:22 PM:

#82 ::: Lori Coulson

"Our elderly female Siamese (Kitsumi) grabbed it and dispatched it in 5 seconds...then proceeded to play toss-the-body."

My family had a siamese like that. The only cat I (vegetarian, animal welfare conscious even for pest rodents) would willingly allow to catch mice around the house - because she would dispatch them first, play with them after.

#102 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 03:18 PM:

Caroline @76: NYC is full of frustrated traffic cops, I think--during various of the blackouts I've lived through, it's been pretty common to find people on streetcorners, directing traffic. Often several to an intersection, if the intersection involves more than two streets. Though more rarely, I have often seen people fling themselves into traffic to create passage for an ambulance or firetruck.

Serge et al., re: cats and rodents: When I first moved into the building I now live in, there wasn't much in the way of a visible mouse population. Now it's reached a much higher level and the building seems heavily populated with clandestine cats (they're not allowed by the co-op board but laundry-room conversations have revealed that plenty of residents have them). My own cat has mastered the ability to kill pretty quickly. I can't tell if he smothers them or breaks their spines. I've seen him chase and pounce, then stand there, usually with a tail sticking out of his mouth, for a minute or so. Then he drops the mouse, dead, onto the floor/carpet and walks away. He has no interest in them once they are deceased; it's my job to remove the corpse. He's always lavishly praised for doing his job. I'm really glad I have screens on my windows as I am convinced he'd try for a bird otherwise, especially the ones that periodically land on top of my air conditioners.

#103 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 03:24 PM:

Both of my cats are enthusiastic bug hunters, but I've never seen a mouse in the place so I don't know how they'd do with larger prey. I'm sure they'd hunt and pounce with alacrity, but I don't know if they learned the killing bite*; they were about 3 months old when they were rescued from a cat hoarder.

* As I understand it, stalking and pouncing are instinctive but a cat that hasn't been taught properly causes death in its prey mostly by accident and/or heart attack.

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 03:44 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 102... I can't tell if he smothers them or breaks their spines.

I'm quite happy that she does most of her killing outside, thus most frequently keeping me blissfully ignorant of her favorite method of carnage. As far as I know, there are no mice inside the house, which is why I was surprised one very early morning, when I shambled across the living-room to let my dogs out to do their business, and almost stepped on a chewed-up mouse in the middle of the room.

#105 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 03:56 PM:

Carrie S. @ 103, interesting. Mine probably didn't learn how to kill with a bite, either, then. They were shelter kittens, and had been taken from their mother by 5 weeks (I'm not sure if something happened to her, or if the kittens were abandoned, or what).

They're indoor-only kitties, so their only prey is (are?) bugs, and their fuzzy-ball cat toys. June tosses the fuzzy balls around for long periods of time. When she deems them sufficiently killed, she brings them to us as trophies, howling in triumph. If we are sleeping, she leaves them in the middle of the bedroom doorway.

Bugs they eat, and quickly. Both of them can knock moths out of the air. But they've never encountered an actual bird or mouse.

#106 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 04:23 PM:

Zelda@83, Mary Aileen@84, Joel@85, Marilee@95 - The toaster oven is a Cuisinart Classic - three knobs and two buttons. Its "Done toasting" signal is to go "beep beep beep" and then be quiet; its "Freaking out for no apparent reason" signal is a continuous beep that doesn't stop until I press the On button and then the Off button. It does this most often when I'm using the electric stove top, so perhaps it is feeling neglected, but it'll occasionally do it when we're not in the kitchen - perhaps it's asking the cats if one of them will let it make toast...

#107 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 05:10 PM:

I'm glad Badb Catha kills the mice pretty much at once.

We have a huge, old (1912) house and probably no way to completely mouse proof it. In fact, when we looked at it prior to buying there were a few dead ones in the kitchen and basement.

After we moved in, Jim and I went around with that expandable foam goo and did 'hole hunting' between the kitchen and the basement.

But we only appear to have one or two get in now every year. Jim's theory is that the mice get together and go, "let's get a volunteer, Fred? Go in and see if that cat is still there," When Fred doesn't come back, they go to the next house.

And Badb;s exploits have interested Siegfried and Yum! in the art of catching and dispatching mice, so we have continued the tradition to a new generation of house cats.

#108 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 05:53 PM:

Sub-freezing temperatures and high winds in the Portland area have caused numerous power outages because all our lines are on poles¹. We lost power at 8 am yesterday, and I immediately found out where I'd gone wrong in my backup supply plans: the battery on the phone and network stack had died since the last time I tested it. Power remained off through the day; as we have an electric stove I planned to go outside and use the gas grill to cook a steak, while heating everything else on the propane camp stove we keep for these emergencies. I went outside to put the meat on the grill, and saw that all of our neighbors on the street were back but we were not (our power comes from a line coming through the back yard rather than from the line on the street, for unknown historical reasons), so I put the meat on and went back inside. There I discovered our lights were back on, and all the neighbors were off again. Not being sure our power would stay on (it did), I kept cooking outside in 20°F; at least I could turn on the deck light and didn't have to cook by flashlight.

Power went off again this morning while I was walking the dogs in the park; it came back again after an hour or so, about a minute after I'd called the power company's outage line to report it.

1. It's a tradeoff between above ground lines that are susceptible to winds and ice, and buried lines that are susceptible to flooding. Also, changing just the city of Portland now would probably cost half a billion dollars. Stimulus money, anyone?

#109 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 06:16 PM:

Well I'm pretty sure our (indoor only) cat mentioned above never learned hunting from anyone. However she grabbed her mouse fully into her mouth and bit down well, paused a moment, and if there was any movement, chomped a couple more times, then paused again. Seemed effective and rapid the couple of times I saw her in action. She once dispatched two half-grown mice at once by this method (a whole litter had got into a container, so catching them wasn't difficult for her until her sister came to "help" and knocked the container over).

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) @ 108: Sympathies. Hope you can get a new backup battery sorted quickly.

Some years ago my in-laws were in a row of houses sharing the mains supply that went to the hospital behind them. Whatever the cause of any power cut, when all the streets around were dark, their lights stayed on, since that supply was priority A1.

#110 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 06:38 PM:

My cat does a head shake every time he starts to eat his food, I'm thinking that it's a shake-to-kill reflex. He does play with the rodents before they're dead though, and then leaves them to us to toss. Thankfully, they're mostly intact at that point.

#111 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 06:46 PM:

I'm in another Portland suburb. Last night's winds were pretty ferocious.

I have electric heat, so a blackout would really suck. My apartment is very well insulated, and I actually don't have to turn on the heat very often, but w/o various appliances turning out waste heat things might be different. The fireplace works, but isn't really designed to be an efficient heat source.

If there were a blackout, I'd probably light some tea candles, wind up my emergency lantern, and catch up on reading.

#112 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 06:51 PM:

One of my cats had distinct opinions about food choices; if I attempted to feed him the wrong brand of dry cat food, he'd dig in it like kitty litter. That was pretty unambiguous.

#113 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 08:41 PM:

Stefa Jones @ 111:

That's pretty much what we did: light a bunch of candles, break out the LED flashlights, wind up the emergency radio so we could listen to "American Roots", and read. Oh, and put on more clothes: we have oil heat, but without electricity the fan doesn't work.

It was kind of fun; Teresa's posting on rereading Sandman convinced me it was time for me to do that as well, so I got volume 1 of The Absolute Sandman out of the library. Reading that by flashlight was quite spooky, especially because I was reading "Dream of a Thousand Cats" as it began to get dark.

#114 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2009, 10:12 PM:

Earl Cooley III: #112: he'd dig in it like kitty litter.

LOL! Mine isn't quite that emphatic, but I can tell she doesn't like her diet/hairball kibble nearly as much as the regular sorts she used to get,¹ much less wet food.; Tough noogies -- she's lost a pound over the last couple of years, but is still overweight. Quite healthy otherwise, thank goodness -- I just took her to the vet, complete with bloodwork (which doubled the bill :-( ).

She was hand-weaned, so I doubt she'd really know what to do with a mouse, but she did lead me to one that had gotten stuck in a roach motel (inside a cabinet, so she had to have smelled it). I've occasionally seen her poke desultorily at a bug, but she doesn't go after flies, and she didn't seem too interested the time a small frog wandered into my kitchen.

¹ And occasionally got later, when I couldn't get hold of the right sort before it was "standard" in the stores.

#115 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2009, 12:17 AM:

re 91: I'm not entirely convinced that I'm remembering the incident correctly, because I'm not sure why I would have jumped to the thought about the dryer without any other prompting. However I'm sure about the part where I realized how the dryer was powering half the house.

A few years later I had a somewhat fly-by-night electrician come in and replace the fuses with breakers. A few months later a PEPCO service guy appeared at my door. The electrician was supposed to work with PEPCO in the matter of removing and replacing the meter; as it was, he had put it back in upside down, causing it to run backwards. Interestingly, this didn't faze the billing department in the slightest, and we continued to be billed normally.

#116 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2009, 12:56 AM:

#94: Alex, if you take a stroll down to Holland Park - or even Hyde Park on a 'good' day - you'll soon discover why no London fox will ever mess with the Squirrel Mafia.

A really bold fox will slink across your path in the grey light and give you a dirty look. The squirrels, though...


Eh, I don't want to think about it!

#117 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2009, 12:33 PM:

C. Wingate @ 115 -- Back when I was living in Kingston, Ontario, a service guy from the utilities commission came to replace the water meter, and installed it backwards. I noticed pretty quickly, and called them, and they sent out another guy to fix it in a day or two. I ended up being underbilled by the amount that the meter ran backwards and forwards, not a large amount for a short time.

Any time I dealt with the utilities people, there was about a 50% chance that they'd screw up. Towards the end of my stay in the city, I tended to refer to them as the Public Futilities Commission.

#118 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2009, 02:15 PM:

Joel #117:

Back in the mid-90s, we had DSL installed. In addition to other idiocies (eventually solved when the phone people said "We'll need to talk to your ISP contact person", to which $SPOUSE replied "I *am* the contact person, start talking") they managed to leave the POTS part disconnected, a fact that we didn't discover for a couple of days. Shows how much we used the phone.

#119 ::: Allen Baum ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2009, 04:29 PM:

Dave@ #49:

We have a friend that used to live not-too-far-away from you. He put in a 5000 gallon diesel generator to make sure the whole house had power during the not-too-infrequent outages.

The first time they needed it, power was going up & down every few seconds. So, every few seconds it would start up, and then shut down. That is, until the next time when it tried to start, and the batteries that got the generator started pooped out because the generator hadn't stayed on long enough on the previous starts to recharge them.

#120 ::: Zack ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2009, 08:51 PM:

Talking of ISP idiocies, the other month, the local severed tentacle of The Phone Company managed to disconnect my DSL while hooking up the new downstairsniks. Apparently their field circus cannot tell the difference between an unused circuit and a DSL-only circuit.

#121 ::: Teemu Kalvas ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2009, 09:17 AM:

Bruce @108: On buried power lines, and their suspectibility to flooding: I don't understand how a buried power line can not be completely resistant to water and function at all. Ground is usually wet, is it not? Then again, this is a hardware issue, and I only know anything about software.

#122 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2009, 10:31 AM:

For what it's worth, all cables but the very high-voltage ones are buried in here in the Netherlands.

(Floods? We buy an average of 50 kg of sand a year to shore up bits of paved ground that erode from this or that misaligned drainpipe. It's like burying a victim under the patio every year.)

#123 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2009, 10:51 AM:

Abi @ 122... burying a victim under the patio every year

Hitchcock's Rear Dike?

#124 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2009, 03:47 PM:

Serge @ 123:

I think you mean Hitchcock's Rear Windrow.

#125 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2009, 04:06 PM:

Bob Webber @ 124... Or was it Hitchcock's Rear Windmill?

#126 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2009, 11:33 PM:

I tell people I don't have a cockroach problem. Having cats, I have a cockroach parts problem.

#127 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2009, 06:24 PM:

Ah, I don't have anything from cockroaches, which I'm pleased about because I own a condo in a ten-condo building, but I do get cricket legs.

#128 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2009, 06:45 PM:

My mother said once, in Texas, that if we didn't have cats, we wouldn't have mice in the house.
(The cats would bring them in. Alive. Then they'd get bored and let the critter go. If the critters were dead, it was parts of critters, on the doormat in the garage.)

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