Plugging Holes

We’ve had a lot of power outages lately. Looking back at my generator run records – yep, I’m that guy – I can see we’ve had one outage a month for the last three months. Every time it’s that same dodgy cutout fuse that blows, and leaves us in the dark for three hours or so.

I don’t consider that a good reliability record, so I’ve started the futile process of complaining about it. I called the power company, and the very nice lady at the call center reported the problem to the local “circuit owner” – she even gave me his name. I even gave her the exact pole number that holds the problem fuse. She promised that the circuit owner would get back to me within 48 hours.

Cue the crickets.

While I wait, I’ll probably file a complaint with the public utilities commissariat. Another exercise in futility, but such is life with public-private utility monopolies. At the very least, though, all these outages have been great practice for our power preps, and I’ve finally gotten a chance to shake out some bugs.

One of the biggest problems we face is notification of an outage. Usually, a power failure is not a subtle thing, because, you know – the lights go out. And usually, someone is home to observe this fact, and start the blackout protocol. But once in a while, we’re all out of the house at the same time, and a power failure that goes undetected while we’re visiting grandma for the evening could have real consequences, especially for a family with a diabetic whose number one mission at all times is to keep the insulin cold.

I thought I was covered on this by virtue of my alarm system. It’s more or less a standard commercially available system, with a few bells and whistles I’ve added over the years. One is a module that connects to the internet and allows text messages and emails for various events, like arming and disarming. When we were on the way back from Idaho last fall, I knew the exact moment my parents had left the house after thoughtfully stocking our fridge with a few groceries and hanging up a welcome home banner, because I got an email that alarm system was tripped as they left the driveway – they had armed the system using the wrong key like they always do. Parents.

Anyway, one of the events that gets sent out is system trouble, which includes loss of AC power. The alarm system itself has a battery backup, as does the whole phone/alarm/network panel in the basement. The cable modem has a built-in battery backup too, and the network switch is on a UPS. So everything’s covered, right?

Nope. Last three power outages, I heard not a peep from my alarms system until I got the generator going. No exactly the heads up I was looking for.

Then it dawned on me that the network router is not in the basement. It’s a wireless router, and to get better coverage in the house, I ran a line from the modem up to the second floor, and another back down from the router to the switch in the basement. So when the power goes out, the router drops off the network, and the alarm system can only queue up the messages until the router comes back. D’oh!

apc_upsLuckily, the solution was as quick and easy as a trip to Staples for a little desktop-grade UPS. I found an APC 700VA UPS for $80 – pretty good deal, and it even has a user-replaceable battery. And 700 VA ought to result in a good long run time – I only have the router plugged into it, plus the power supply for our nano-cell, which is like a mini cell tower that gives us coverage out here in the boonies.

I did a function test this morning – flipped the breakers that cover both the office and alarm system. A couple of seconds later, I got the text message and email from the alarm system. Success!

Am I completely covered? Unfortunately, no – I can easily imagine a falling tree knocking out power and cable lines, in which case keeping the LAN powered won’t matter. Still, it’s another hole in my preps plugged, and an affirmative step that I can take while I wait for a nameless, faceless bureaucracy to probably do nothing.  Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands.

Actually, pretty much every time you’re better off handling things yourself.

1 Comment

  1. APB

    So I did get a call back from the “circuit owner” – six days later, though, instead of the promised 48 hours. Still, it was a good conversation. I could tell the guy was a kindred spirit and that he takes it personally when his stuff doesn’t work right, just like I do. Also like me, he hates intermittent problems – by the time he gets out here to inspect the circuit, there’s nothing obvious, and so the root cause remains a mystery. He’s guessing there may be some sort of hidden short circuit that only manifests itself once in a while. Kind of hard to justify replacing components under those conditions, but I mentioned my diabetic daughter and he said he’s going to talk about it with his management.

    Important lesson here: nameless, faceless bureaucracies aren’t always as nameless or faceless as you may think. There’s probably someone who cares about your problem inside any big organization, and the key to making progress is to find the right person. Sounds like I did in this case.

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