Walking in a Winter Fairyland

On Monday, Jan 15, 2007 an ice storm walked leisurely across Michigan and magically transformed the trees into crystal fairy sculptures.

Monday, Monday, can't trust that day.

The storm also turned the electrical grid into porridge.

Our house lost power at about 04:00 on Monday morning.

I was in DC, and by the time I discovered that I couldn't log into the system at home, Detroit Edison had already received reports of power outages. There were 120,000 houses in DTE's area without power by the time the dust settled, but this early on Monday the dust hadn't even gotten stirred up. DTE expected our house to be back on line by 10:00.

10:00 came, but the power didn't. About then the DTE website started claiming that they knew there were many problems, they were analyzing the situation and would have better repair estimates soon.

I suggested to Carol that she turn on the stove burners to keep the house from cooling off any faster than it had to. I didn't think she'd have power right away.

At this time the house was comfortable, but a bit cool. For the next couple days, she ran the stove whenever she was up. This kept the house at about 50 degrees. At night she turned the stove off, not wanting to run an open flame when nobody was available to smell the smoke. When the stove wasn't burning, the temperature dropped into the 30s.

By about 16:00 on Monday, DTE thought we'd have power by 11:59 PM on Tuesday.

Monday evening, the website claimed to have no record of a power problem at our address. I called Carol, who reported that there was still no power. I reported the outage again to DTE.

On Tuesday night, 11:59 came and went, but the power stayed off. The website said they were re-evaluating the problems and would have new repair estimates Real Soon Now.

By 03:45 on Wed morning, they had a new estimate: 11:59 PM on Wednesday. This sounded too much like the restaurant's "20 minute wait for a table, sir", so I packed up and caught the 06:15 flight home.

I run a very model of a modern AC Generator

I got home about 09:00. It was about 45 degrees in the house. Carol was bundled in 3 layers of clothes with a hat on. She'd been running the stove for a couple hours at that point, and the house was warming up.

I pulled the generator out of the garage and started trying to start it.

This generator is a Coleman 3000 (30 Amp), designed for "portable" use at construction sites and such. It has a pull cord to start it, and in the summer, it's never taken more than a couple pulls to get it running.

Some 15 or 20 minutes later, after 40+ pulls on the starter cord, it hadn't started. I was panting and had a stitch in my side. I went inside to rest for a bit and complain.

One problem was that it was so cold that the oil was stiff and it was hard to pull the cord. I'm not sure I was getting enough speed to start the engine, and suspected that even if the motor fired, it might not be able to keep going. Carol suggested I drag the generator inside and let it warm up a bit.

I bought this particular model because it's (barely) big enough for our critical services, has wheels, and is small enough for me to move. This isn't the same as small enough for me to pick up and carry for more than a few feet. And did I mention steps? However, I managed to manhandle the thing through the front door and into the entryway without major damage to the generator, door or me.

Once I got it into the house, it sucked heat like a politician sucks campaign funds. Within a few minutes of bringing the generator into the house Carol and I could see our breath in the living room. The temperature had dropped almost 10 degrees.

I gave it about a half hour to warm up, and tried again to start it while it was still in our nice warm (relatively) house.

The cord pulled easier, but it still failed to fire. So, I took out the spark plug and glared at it, and tried harder to pump fuel through the system, yanked the cord a few times to try and see if the spark plug were actually sparking (I saw nothing) and finally put the generator back together and tried one last time.


I turned it off before the house was completely filled with exhaust fumes, dragged it back to the garage, started it again (first try!), and began stringing extension cords to power the house.

Life is hooking up

The 'fridge was easiest, so I did that first. This is just dragging the heavy-duty extension cord that I keep for the generator into the house, plugging in a power strip, and plugging the 'fridge into that. Presto, we now have even more cold in the house. But at least, now it's where we want it.

The next trick was to get heat into the house.

We have a natural gas furnace, but it needs electric power to run the thermostats, open the flue, ignite the gas, etc. The furnace is connected to power via some Romex cable in a conduit that runs to the fuse-box.

What it lacks is a plug I could use to hook it to the generator.

I really didn't want to play games with disconnecting the cable from the fusebox and splicing in a zip cord. A little thought, and I realized that the furnace has an electric switch to power it on and off. I could hook a zip cord onto the furnace side of the power switch, turn off the switch, and plug the furnace into the generator without having the power flow back into the rest of the house and out onto the grid.

Fortunately, being a pack rat, every time I've tossed out something that had an electric cord, I clipped the cord and saved it. I have a fine collection of zip cords. A little digging, a few minutes with a wire stripper and screwdriver, another long extension cord and power strip, and presto it's all hooked up and ready to test.

I held my breath and clicked the switch on my power strip to ON. The furnace clicked, whirred, made another funny noise or two, paused for a nerve-wracking 5 seconds, then the igniter started click-click-clicking followed by a comforting whoosh as the gas started burning. I put my hand on the flue to confirm that it was getting hot above the damper and we were sending the smoke up the chimney, not into the house, and announced another success.

I strung more wires into the area of the basement where the water pump hides. Again, there's a switch, so I did the same zip cord trick to get water running again.

Unfortunately, by now I was down to dregs of extension cords, and one of these was only rated for 7 amps or so. I hooked the pump up, clicked the power on, heard no pumping noises and felt the extension cord get hot. A quick (panic!) yank and pull, and the pump is no longer connected to power.

So, I went to work on the computers. Again, this is fairly easy. I just had to run some extension cord into my office, unplug the UPS units from the wall and plug them into the power strip connected to the generator.

The only tricky part here is that the better quality UPS's have decent sensors for what constitutes good power. The output from the Coleman 3000 isn't it. The Coleman 3000 is really designed for running a circular saw at a construction site.

My cheapest UPS from CompUSA (Connext) will happily eat anything, charge it's batteries and run my equipment. So, there was a little judicious UPS swapping until I had computers and routers on UPS's that could cope with the available power.

Within a few minutes, the spam was flowing again.

I made a trip to the hardware store and got a nice, long, heavy duty extension cord and worked on the pump again. I dug out my Kill_A_Watt meter to see what the voltage was on the wire and make sure I wasn't going to burn out the motor. The heavy duty zip cord, power strip and Kill-A-Watt looked like this:

The voltage would drop to 65 volts or so for a second, then bounce back to 105 volts. A little low, but not dangerously low. The specs on the generator say 30 Amps continuous, and 37 for startup.

Kludgey, but we had water and could start flushing the toilets again.

There was much rejoicing.

The rest of Wednesday consisted of moving power from fridge to freezer to pump. The generator I've got is not even close to enough power to run our whole house. It can barely run the pump when that's the only thing on the line. 30 Amps just doesn't go very far.

But, we had heat and water and stuff in the freezer and fridge wouldn't go bad.

I spent part of Thursday getting the phones functional again. We've got mostly cordless or 4-line phones that need power to work. But, again, being a pack-rat, I had a bunch of old phones that would work as soon as you hooked them up to a phone wire. I hooked up some of these to our main phone lines so we could get business and personal calls both upstairs and down.

Given that we don't have places to put these phones, some of the installations were a bit amusing.

The marines have landed

It took until Thursday afternoon for the house to be back to normal temperature. I hadn't realized how much thermal mass there is in a house. The air cools off quickly, but all the walls, furniture, 25 gallons of bottled water, etc hold a lot of heat and will keep the temperature from changing quickly. This is good while the heat is off, but annoying when you've finally got heat and want to warm things up again.

On Thursday AM, I noticed that a wire was down at our neighbor's house. I went to the DTE website and reported it. A few hours later, I saw the DTE truck pull up next door, so I headed out to see what help I could offer and what news I could get.

The wire turned out to be a cable TV wire, not a power wire. The DTE repair crew was surprised to hear that we had no power for the entire area. They seemed to think that the cleanup was down to just individual houses that had problems. They promised to report it, and really thought I'd have power by the end of the day.

About 17:00, Carol and I saw 4 DTE trucks trundle down Fleming Rd. About 17:30, two of them trundled back, and about 17:45, we had power!

By 18:00 I had all the zip cords removed, extension cords disconnected, things plugged back into the wall outlets, and we were off the generator again.

As I went out to turn off the generator I noticed that it was raining.

And Freezing.

So I went out and got more gas for the generator.

Just in case.