In 1998 we had an epic ice storm. Our house was without power for 3 days. The storm was reported around the world: we got calls from Australia asking if we were OK. Some parts of the electrical grid were so badly damaged that other Mainers were in the dark for weeks. On December 23, 2013 it was deja vu. Unlike 1998, it stayed cold this time and more snow followed. I expected a calamity. This time however, our outage lasted 2-1/2 days and power crews were able to get the grid up and running for everyone else at about the same time.
The drop in temperature as soon as the trees and wires were encased in ice made it necessary to seek ways to keep the house warm. Like many in Maine, we have three sources of heat: an oil fueled boiler, a wood stove and a propane (faux wood) stove. Only the boiler relies on electricity. The propane stove uses a blower but it’s optional. The office has a “ups” or uninterrupted power supply. This is a small unit consisting of a 24 volt battery and inverter, a device which converts the 24 volts to standard house current. Normally these units only allow about 15 minutes of power because their internal battery is so small, but I installed exterior batteries (two marine deep cycle) which increase the reserve to 12 hours or more. To this power source we connect, besides the big work computer, the modem and router, so our internet connection never goes out (theoretically!). We can also connect a few lights to this. The new LED bulbs run on practically nothing.
This leaves two power-hungry servants out of the loop: the well and the refrigerator. We can do without both for a while, but sooner or later the ice will melt in the freezer and the other side will become a pathogen lab, so in a few hours we faced the dreaded gasoline generator. This thing, with its noise, smoke, stinky fuel and snaking power cords is not a favorite. Nothing much compares to a dark, midnight, sub-zero refueling session. If it’s still running you have to get the fuel into a shaking tank opening (not officially encouraged) or restart with several pulls using your tennis-elbow degraded arm. Then you get to re-enter the nearly dark house with clothes reeking of gasoline. Two and a half days of no power doesn’t sound like much, but since a fill only lasts an hour and change, this can work out to maybe 30 or so refueling/restarting session, and trips into town for more gas.
With the generator running we can hook up the boiler and have hot water for showers and dishwashing. The batteries can get charged up and the fridge stays safe. We can tell when the well kicks on, the generator sounds like it’s struggling for a bit. Still, a modicum of normalcy is restored. But at about 8 PM on the 23rd, the internet went out. Since our cable supplies not only internet but also our land line and TV, we were cut off except for cell phones; remarkably they still worked. Our one smart phone was able to access weather reports and email. That was a welcome change from the 1998 ice storm.
Meanwhile, Bangor Hydro was continually postponing the return to power and the “total customers affected” kept climbing. Finally, on Christmas night they seemed to throw in the towel with “customers should seek alternative housing” and showing a repair date of Friday the 27th. I felt sorry for the line workers having to forgo holiday fun, but I could feel the burden of the last few days’ struggle, and I was warm, clean and well fed.
Surprisingly, at about midnight on the 25th, the power came back on for good. We made plans to upgrade to a more substantial propane-fueled standby generator. This plan is on hold while the local supplier is still scrambling to serve existing customers. The new system will feature remote starting, no refueling, quiet operation, no extension cords and distant exhaust. With our luck, it will be another 15 years before we really need it.