2/11/14 Wintry Mix

That’s what the weather report says. Wintry mix….chance of ice accumulation of up to .3 inches tonight with another .3 inches tomorrow. It could be more, it could be less. It could be none, after all, the weather report is a forecast. One thing I am certain of is that it is raining and 35°F and a couple of more degrees down will make this light rain stick to the trees and the power lines. Then guess what!!!

Small, isolated power outages will initially result. A pine limb gets laden with ice and droops down right into the power line serving your home. A fuse blows on the tap feeding your neighborhood. Your home goes dark. Someone from the power company comes out to see what the problem is, finds it, fixes it, and before he gets back home, the same tap is out again, a different pine limb this time, but same fuse, same neighborhood.

Ice StormThen, as the ice accumulates, this begins to happen all over the place. Hundreds of calls come in and the power company can no longer keep up, nor can their trucks negotiate the icy roads very well, as, likely, one or more of them responding to your call has skidded through a stop sign, or slid off the road in a curve and is now stuck in the ditch. Hopefully, no one was hurt, but nevertheless, they are not going to make it to your house this evening.

If the freezing rain continues to fall, more and more limbs simply get too heavy. If enough freezing rain falls, it collects on the power lines themselves, and soon enough, since water weighs about eight pounds per gallon and a one inch accumulation on a 400 foot span in one direction and a 400 foot span in the pother direction means thousands of pounds of weight added to the tension of the lines, and the cross-arms supporting the wires are now loaded beyond their ability to bear the weight. They crack suddenly, freeing the tension and the weight in an instant, shaking off the ice for several spans, causing a reaction the all along the line and supporting structures. Structural engineers call these types of events “moments of acceleration”. Some moments can be more than structures are designed to bear, thus, several spans of the lines come crashing down to the ground. Now, the main feeders that feed those taps that feed your neighborhood are off line…and circuit breakers in substations trip out on over-current because the lines are no longer insulated by the air, but are instead in contact with the earth.

As the freezing rain continues to fall, the transmission lines coming from the generating plants which feed those substations also fail. Now widespread power outages are reported with hundreds of thousands of people without power. As the transmission lines come down, sensitive relaying equipment in the generating plants do what they are designed to do, and detecting short-circuited transmission lines, the generating plant relaying devices, whose primary purpose is to protect the expensive equipment behind them, trip out the entire generating plant. This happens at several more generating plants connected to the grid, since their protective relays look at each other and are sometimes pretty fickle about what they perceive as a problem, thus, they shut everything down, just as they are supposed to do. In the meantime, your world has gotten cold and dark and the freezing rain continues to fall, now causing trees to fall, and huge limbs to break off, tearing down the power lines that are not energized but were still standing.

Out on the transmission line, the failure of one steel transmission tower causes a chain-reaction, bringing down about fifteen 500 foot spans of transmission line in one contiguous run. The failure of another one a few miles away does the same thing. It could take weeks to get the lines back up as power companies, electric cooperatives, and municipal electrical distributors use up all their inventory of poles, cables, and accoutrements necessary to keep those cables all up in the air. Parts suppliers work round the clock with factories to get stuff shipped in and delivered to your power company’s warehouse. Calls go out to neighboring power companies who may not have been adversely affected by the weather.

Sometime early in the night the icy rain begins to fall, my own phone rings. It is the chief engineer for a long-time client. Our employees will be among those helping to get your power back on. They will work round the clock until they drop from exhaustion, then go to sleep in a cold motel room, since, remember, the power is out. Even though they are restoring the power lines in your town, the transmission lines are still down, the generating plants are off line, and the substations that feed the power lines that feed your house have no power going to them. Phones ring off the hook at the power company. They know that your power is out. They know that everyone’s power is out.

Serving power companies is what we do for a living, and we are good at it. The weather will do what it will do, and fortunately, during an ice storm, if you stay home and don’t try to ride around, thinking that because you have a Subaru it is OK for you to drive on the ice, other than some damage to the flora in your yard, you’ll likely not have much trouble besides the inconvenience of having no power. An Ice storm is not like a hurricane or a tornado, where you are putting power lines back up amid the total destruction of people’s homes, noticing the foundation where a house once was, the site no longer needing electrical power since there is nothing left there…the place where three people were killed when their home was swept away in two-hundred mile an hour winds and their bodies found a thousand yards away from what was once their house.

No, ice storms don’t cause this kind of destruction, but they can and will, if they are bad enough, completely destroy the power distribution system that feeds your home, sending you into the dark, and sending thousands of people out in the ice and cold to put those lines back where they belong, which is definitely not on the ground.

These men may not do it fast enough to suit you, but it is not going fast enough to suit them either, since they would rather be at home, which, most likely just like yours, also has no power. Yet instead of installing generators in their own homes, they are making certain the one you installed in yours does not kill them as they work on your power lines, since a carelessly installed generator can feed high voltage right back onto the power line they are working to put back where it belongs. Many linemen have been killed this way. I can’t think of a single one that is looking forward to being killed by your generator, or who is interested in trading his life for your comfort. It is urgent that generators be hooked up properly, with your house being completely isolated from the electrical distribution system.

Transformers are remarkable devices. The transformer that serves your home very likely transforms 7,000 to 14,000 volts to 240 volts which is what you use in your house. If you put 240 volts back into a transformer from your generator, guess what happens on the power line side? Yep!! Transformers don’t give a hoot which way the power is coming from. Put in 7,200 in the high side and you get 240 on the low side. Put in 240 on the low side, and SURPRISE. The careless, or tired and now distracted lineman, can get a full 7200 volt dose of an electrical charge that can be instantly fatal.

I know the men that work for us. They are sleeping like they might never get to sleep again….at least those of us who have done this before, except for me. I am wide awake, listening to the rain on the metal roof of my house, waiting for it to turn to the sound of sleet, which could happen at any minute as the thermometer now reads 33°F. It could get ugly. If it does, me and our employees, and hundreds of friends, and thousands of others will be helping you get your power back on. It could be easy, or it could only be done by the hardest.

It has been twenty years since the great ice storm of 1994. It was supposed to just be a little bit of ice accumulation, but the forecasters were not able to ask the weather its exact intentions….they just make forecasts since the weather sometimes plays its cards pretty close to its vest and a stern poker face is all we get to see until our bluff is called. We got called in 1994. Maybe 2014 will not be like that, but if it is, when you see a bucket truck and a line truck working to put the lines back up in the air, slow down as you pass by, and wait until the ice is entirely gone when you do, else they have to stop what they are so urgently doing doing to assist you in your need. Give them a wave and a thank you. It means a lot to them.

If this were to turn out like 1994, don’t sweat a two day power outage if you are lucky enough to have one. Some folks in North Mississippi went six weeks without power as some electrical systems experienced total destruction, and eight inches of ice can cause total destruction.

In the meantime, I am sleepy, but sleep will not come for as sure as it does, the phone will ring, then I will make other phones ring, then others will make yet again other phones ring until ringing phones have multiplied exponentially, and men make their sure and steady way through the ice to get to the place where they will help your power company which in turn will help you. This ringing of phones will go on until the phones no longer work because the back-up power to the cell phone towers fails. Then the world will be cold, dark, and silent.

“But, no one is helping me get my power back on,” you say, perhaps with a bit of indignation. “I pay a hefty fee for my power every month and expect it.”

Yes, for a fact you do, and you only pay for as much of it as you use and not a bit more, just like the fuel in your car. But, let it be gone, and you’ll soon discover how inconvenient it is not to have it. Some of you will moan. Some of you will whine. Some of you will threaten legal action against your power company, which has about as much control over bad weather as you do. Others of you will be stoic, remembering, perhaps, that it wasn’t so long ago that there was no such thing as electrical power on demand. Now, we demand it and are lost without it. It’s as if our life stops when the power goes out. I’ll have to admit to being inconvenienced, since I no longer have the convenience, but for a fact my life does not stop with the power; it goes into high gear. Others, during the power outage, will rediscover the joy of simple conversation with those they love as they make hot chocolate on their camp stove, turning an inconvenience into an adventure as they cast their now dead smart phones aside and look each other in the face instead of at tiny screens.

Thanks to my local electric cooperative that furnishes power to my home: a valued client and valuable asset to our community, and staffed through and through with the most competent and respected of friends. Thanks to all the electric co-ops, municipals, investor owned utilities, and qualified contractors who will work through ice, snow, sleet, rain, and storm to help restore your power. It’s not just about the money….all these people who work in power generation, transmission and distribution are very proud of the work they do, and of the power they deliver to your home, of which not everyone is capable or willing.

Lord bless them, every one.

Update 8:40AM 2/11/14 – It looks like the proverbial bullet has been mostly dodged except for a few spots between Starkville and Greenwood, Mississippi.. Everyone likes their power. The air temperature is still hovering around 34°F, but the rain has stopped. Other parts of the country may not be so lucky. Everything described herein is applicable to everywhere else. Electrical power is electrical power; it works the same everywhere. More than anything else, it has changed the world. What would we do if we lost it long term in our major metropolitan areas? The answer to that is a forlorn jeremiad of apocalyptic proportion..

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