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The power is out... again.
27 December 2010

Pole Three of the past six years, we've gone without electricity for at least a few hours on Christmas Day.  That's not a very good track record but it's part of rural life in Hawaii.  As inconvenient as it is to have Christmas dinner nearly ruined, that's still less convenient than losing power during a work day when trying to process coffee or print out shipping labels.

Hawaii has some of the highest electric rates in the  country.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, almost all our electricity is generated from diesel power plants and importing all that fuel to the island is expensive.  Second, and possibly more important, the Big Island is not connected to any of the other islands.  On the mainland, if Los Angeles is short on electricity it can import from Las Vegas.  If one power plant goes down there are lots of others to take up the slack.  That's not the case when on an island in the middle of the ocean.

To further complicate things, Hawaii doesn't have the biggest budget or best management practices.  The infrastructure is aging and wasn't the highest quality to begin with.  It doesn't take much to knock out our electricity.  On average, we lose power once every few months.

This Christmas the power outage was due to a large thunderstorm that went directly overhead.  There were several lightning strikes that were so close they shook the entire house.  I can't blame that on the electric company.  What I can blame on them is their less than stellar response.

Fuse Utility poles make excellent lightning rods.  Looking at a typical utility pole, you'll see several things.  The lower wires are other utilities such as cable (usually on the bottom) and telephone.  The electric line(s) are always on top.

The big cylindrical can near the top of the pole is a transformer.  The high voltage cable from the electric company feeds into the top of the transformer.  The three cables on the side feed 240V to the house, neutral in the middle and 120V on either side.

The dangling metal piece next to the transformer is the fuse.  It's not normally dangling like that.  The fuse is nothing but a thin wire that gets burned by an electrical surge.  With the fuse gone, the switch springs open, disconnecting the electricity.  The lightning had blown out nearly every fuse along our road, and probably a couple transformers too.
It was several hours after the power went out before we saw a lineman driving up and down the road with his spotlight, inspecting all the poles.  We went out to watch and say Hello but he didn't say much.  It was difficult to tell if he was too busy to talk or just not friendly.  I think it was a little of both.

Hello After fixing the pole at the end of our driveway he said "Your power should be on now" then drove off.  By the time we walked back to the house and saw that the power was still out, he was long gone.  He hadn't even bothered to look at the pole near our house, the one with the transformer.

When morning arrived and power was still out, I decided it was time to start complaining.  The electric company lady was rude and unhelpful.  I started to drive down the road to look for a lineman myself when I saw them coming up the other way.  Apparently several of our neighbors had the same problem and had also complained.

These new guys were much friendlier.  They admitted that the night shift guy should have fixed every pole, not just the ones along the street.  I don't know if he got in trouble for not doing his job.  Whatever the case, the new guys had the electricity back on in no time.

Lineman We'd be lucky if that was the extent of our problems but lightning is so powerful it can do all sorts of strange things.  We unplugged everything before the storm arrived but I had left the modem's data line connected.  I knew better, lightning can travel down a data wire just as easily as an electrical wire.

It turned out that the lightning surge had gone through the modem without hurting it but fried the router and our telephone, both downstream from the modem.  Luckily we got a handy, dandy gift certificate for Christmas so we could get a new phone and new router.  We had everything working again in time to fill Monday's coffee orders.

It's amazing how dependent we are on electricity.  Without electricity we have no lights, Internet, phone or TV.  We also have no water since the pump doesn't work.  Hauling buckets to flush the toilets isn't so bad.  The worst is when the power goes out late in the evening after a hard day's work but before I've had a chance for a shower.

At least we're in Hawaii so we don't have to worry about things freezing when the furnace doesn't work.  The water pump is the only thing we really miss when the power goes out.  A backup generator would fix that problem nicely.  Unfortunately a backup generator is nowhere near the top of our wish list.  So whenever the power goes out, we'll be sitting in the dark.  We can handle it.  It's just like camping except with nice beds and a couch.

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