Sunday, May 28, 2000

Fun With Electricity.

I work at night, so obviously I was jacked when I got home and saw that heavy construction was about to be done right in front of my house. The day before I had to sleep through jackhammers about three houses down, and the usual chorus of dogs next door. The next door neighbor has about twice the number of dogs that the city of Boise allows without buying a kennel license, and if there's one thing that gets them barking more than just the sheer joy of doing it, it's jackhammers halfway down the block.

Just before bedtime I was using the computer, listening to my collection of Slim Whitman mp3's, about to send off an email to Radio Shack to ask them why the hell they decided to stop selling PZMs. (If you agree this was a stupid move on their part, be sure to send them email and demand that they bring the PZMs back.) Just before I was able to send this thing off, the power cut off for a moment and make my rig reset. Seemed like kind of a violent one, so I shut the computer down and decided it was time for bed. Then I noticed that the little heater/fan device that keeps my room warm was acting strangely. The fan wasn't working anymore, but the heater part was. It was quietly oozing heat out. If I switched it to 'fan', the heat would go off and the fan would work. Stranger yet, each time I'd turn it off or on, my answering machine would reset itself, and I could hear a printer in another room reset too. "Damn, my heater's broken. Maybe I can complain to the water company tomorrow and get some kind of reimbursement," sez I. Then I try to go to sleep.

About an hour and a half of barking dogs and heavy construction later, there's an explosion toward the living room. I get up, look outside, see nothing, go into the kitchen, see nothing, then hear another explosion toward the living room again. Another explosion and I see flashes of blue sparks behind the stereo. I hadn't even considered that these explosions were inside the house. I panic and start unplugging everything I can think of. The house is filling with the smell of burned-out circuitry.

The furnace is rumbing, like it's halfway running but not quite. The fridge is doing the same thing. I realize that it's a brownout, where the power isn't out, but isn't fully on either. This is worse for equipment than a blackout usually is. Some of the things in the house were functioning normally, some didn't work at all, and some were somewhere in between (like the little heater). As I'm on my way out the microwave turns itself on, with it's clock set at zero seconds. And if I turn the coffee maker on, the furnace goes from it's rumbling idle state to actually blowing cold air out the vents. Seems to me like a grounding problem. And who's fucking up the ground?

I run outside, still in a panic, toward about four water company employees in the front yard and say, "What the hell are you doing to my power?" One of them sez, "I don't know. Call Idaho Power. We're nowhere near the power." And I say, "What?! Shit's blowing up in my house! Alright, guess I'll go back in there and put all the fuckin' fires out." They must have been confused.

So I go back in the house, which is just reeking of blown electronics, unplug more stuff, and call Idaho Power. If you call their lifethreatening emergency hotline you get a recording and goes something like: "If you have a question about your bill press or say 'one' now. [long pause] If you would like to book a hayride with Reddi Killowatt, press or say 'two' now. [long pause] If you're experiencing a lifethreatening emergency, press or say..." So they tell me that someone will be on their way.

I go outside to wait, so I can flag them down when they show up and so I can avoid the horrible smell in the house. Hanging out with my cat. Some of the water guys come over and ask what's up and I tell them. They prob'ly thought I was making it all up. We shoot the shit for a while, and then they point out once again that they hadn't even seen an electrical wire the whole time they've been out there. I wait some more, once in a while going back in to make sure nothing else is on fire, and pondering whether it's dangerous to have a gas furnace running that doesn't seem to actually be burning any gas. I'm a bit too nervous to start pulling fuses out (this is an old house; no breakers). And I can't find anything like a main cutoff switch.

The power guy shows up. I tell him the story, figuring that he'll believe me. He sees this kind of stuff all the time. But all he can say is, "Wow. I've never seen anything like that before." He checks the power at the point it enters the house, and it's good. He suggests I call an electrician, becuase it's obviously something wrong inside the house. Then he seems to take off. But fortunately he stopped before he left and talked to the water company guys. After a little while of comparing notes they came to the conclusion that all the wiring in my house had been grounded to the water line. Apparently this was a normal practice back in the days of yore, and had prob'ly worked fine at the time. But over the years, as the pipe starts to rust, it loses conductivity with the ground it travels through. So the electricity keeps on going until it finds a ground. In the case of my house it wasn't grounding until at least somewhere on the other side of the street. And when they removed a section of pipe in the street, the extra electricity in my house had nowhere to go, except through a few choice appliances in my house. And they guy that removed that chunk of pipe would prob'ly be dead if he hadn't been wearing rubber gloves at the time.

They stick this thing that looked like half of a pair of jumper cables on the pipe ends and everything was back to something like normal.

The furnace wouldn't stop pumping out cold air, however. I didn't know enough about gas furnaces to feel safe with it doing that. I assumed the pilot light went out somewhere in that whole process, and didn't know if that meant that stray gas was building up in there or what. I called the gas company and they sent someone out to check on things. He said there was no pilot light; that the furnace ignites itself as needed, and there were no gas leaks, but he smelled a burned out motor in there. He couldn't figure out how to get the thing to stop running either. No switches on the furnace or thermostat, and turning down the thermostat didn't do anything useful. So I unscrewed the right fuse from the 1930's style fusebox.

The final body count: a stereo amplifier, a pair of computer speakers, a television, a computer monitor, a VCR, an outlet in the bathroom, and a fan in the furnace. I was awake for about 24 hours and got 3 hours of sleep. Tomorrow brings a day of hanging around the house waiting for inspectors, electricians, and heater repairers to decide to show up. Waiting for the electrician or someone like him.

Bonefish Sam's life has since returned to normal.