Life, Interrupted

Once again I have to apologize for missing a week – although this time it wasn’t my currently rather flaky memory that’s to blame.

We had a storm roll through a little before midday last Wednesday. First came the flickering lights as the power surges started. Then I noticed that the northwestern sky was damn near black. Then the real fun happened.

Next, there’s a longer than usual power surge that turns the lights off, then back on. Not quite long enough to reset the various clocks around the house, but close.

Then I smell electrical burning.

A quick and rather frantic search leads to the source of the smell, and a frantic yank on the cords to get them out of there. Which promptly turned off the modem since it was plugged into the power board – which left one of the prongs in the outlet when I pulled it loose.

What followed was the fastest powering down of computers in history without doing a hard shutdown, then checking other outlets with the aid of a torch because no way was I risking anything else melting. Lights got turned off because they were flickering constantly, and then I waited.

One exceedingly dead power strip with the Dread Kitty Westley investigating

About 45 minutes later, the worst had passed so I started cautiously powering things back up. And promptly discovered that lights were running dull, and flickering a lot. It was enough to go back to working, though, so I did that and left the personal system powered off.

The equally deceased outlet – and yes, I know it’s a crappy picture

When The Husband got home, we discovered that the microwave was trying to work and failing, and that trying to run the nuker made the lights brown out. We also lost the alarm clock to the surge, and the surge protector that the washing machine used.

And I could not keep my computer running. It rebooted itself something like 5 times in the space of half an hour. Not the time to write a post.

We lived with this… delightful… situation (along with multiple calls to the power utility and the electrician) until Sunday, when someone finally realized that the dangly bit on the power lines wasn’t a branch. Part of the reason it took so long was that in our county alone there were 35 thousand houses without power. The number for the area of the storm was closer to half a million. Our partial and flaky power was a tad lower on the priority list than full outages.

The line itself looks like it’s two wires twisted around each other. It had split, and part of it was hanging down, so anything past that point – like our house – was getting at best half-power. No bloody wonder all the electronics were flaky.

21 thoughts on “Life, Interrupted

  1. This sort of who-ordered-this-OMFG-weather?? is why my computers are all plugged into UPSs, and the UPSs are plugged into high-quality surge units (never ever not EVER do it the other way round; surge protector plugged into a UPS can trap/bounce a surge and start a fire). I’ve lost a number of surge units and a couple of UPSs to burn-down-the-neighborhood grade power spikes, but I’ve never lost a computer to it. My precioussesss never touch a mere surge unit, let alone a naked wall socket.

    And lesser electronics get a cheap surge protector, which saves much replacing of power bricks. (I’m not cursed with greater electronics such as a washing machine, but protecting those too is good policy.)

    Anyway, much relief that you suffered only a burnt outlet, and not a burnt house!!

    1. My UPS units have surge protectors built-in (on the output).

      So the first thing I did after taking them out of the boxes was go out to buy addition surge protectors to put between the sockets & the UPS units, because the UPS units cost 10x as much I didn’t want them getting fried if I could avoid it.

      1. That too (tho I buy $30 surge units and $100 UPSs, so the disparity isn’t as large). Just be sure to never plug the surge protector into the UPS!

  2. Almost 20 years ago now [yipes!] a storm went past where I happened to be living. It was impressive, as Great Plains summer storms tend to be, with the usual sound and light effects. Not too long after it passed, I heard what sounded like a jet engine, except it was coming from the room I used as an office. Huh. I went in and discovered that a power surge had done something to my laptop’s hard drive, and it was literally screaming. What looked like DOS commands were on the screen, and the computer was so hot that I got burned when I brushed against it unplugging it before I hit the kill switch.

    As best the computer guru and I could sort out, the power surge zapped the surge protector and got to the computer. Until I finally replaced that laptop, I called it “The Old Grey Mare,” because she “ain’t what she used to be.” And I am paranoid about unplugging all things computer ever since. If I hadn’t been home, the laptop probably would have caught fire, with the usual results for the rest of the apartment.

    1. I ritualistically unplug everything when a storm is coming. You drive past one lightning-struck transformer and see all the burnt power lines, it leaves an impression. We had a lightning-struck oak tree in the yard until it fell over a couple years ago, so the threat is real.

      I once saw a bird take down a whole hospital. A pigeon managed to touch two wrong things on the -big- power pole with the big transformer out behind my house. Its carbonized corpse managed to transfer so much energy that there was molten aluminum dripping on the lawn. Took the power company guys a while to fix that.

      1. Neighborhood in Montgomery (called Oak Park, natch) would routinely lose power every couple of months because a treerat would store nuts in a substation component until it made a connection (usually involving the squirrel) and shorted out.

    1. Friend’s tale from back in that era: Lightning zapped a nearby phone pole, and the surge came down the phone line and set the modem on fire. Quick reactions saved a house fire, as well as the rest of the PC. But it was an alarming wakeup that ANY incoming wire can transmit that surge…. including a phone line, which nowadays means DSL…. typically plugged directly into the PC.

      Network surge suppressors exist, but good luck finding ’em. However the better surge units, and some UPSs, now include network ports and sometimes cable ports. And most have phone ports.

      How to tell a better surge unit: it’s a brand you recognize as being in the power-and-cables business (Belkin, APC, Tripp-Lite, etc), and it’s an awkward heavy thing half the size of a shoebox, with an extra-long-and-thick power cable, an on/off switch, and 6 or 8 outlets. It is not a puny thing the size of an egg that clings to the wall outlet.

      1. in on phone line, through the surge protection in UPS, in through modem, kills pc.

        tripp-lite paid to replace the modem, insisted modem should have stopped the surge..

          1. nope, there was protection on the phone line, and it was melted into a black mass of goo which then solidified.

            1. That much coming through actual surge protection should have killed the UPS first… okay, given that, it does sound like their modem jack failed to do its job.

            2. I am not an electrician, but I would speculate that given the energy dumped into the UPS you may have had a grounding issue on the wall outlet. The surge protection works by dumping voltage to ground, but enough stayed with the UPS to melt it. So either the grounding line inside the UPS was woefully inadequate, or the ground itself was.

              I think maybe I’ll put a multi-meter on some grounds around here and check resistance. 0-0

              1. naah, the phone line part of the ups was grounded to the metal housing. it was a surge protector not a UPS, and supposedly one of tripplite’s good ones

  3. Ah yes, the joys of rural electric service. We have a power outage at least every month around here, sometimes every week.

    I have -everything- on a UPS. TV, sound system, what seems like forty computers, everything. After reading this, and after Reziac’s comment about the washing machine, I will be looking into a whole-house surge protector. Something beefy enough to survive a lightning strike or a brown-out/spike combination.


    It seems these devices basically dump an over-voltage to ground, and they fit right into the existing breaker box. This one that I showed was the most expensive that Home Depot had to offer, I’ll be looking around a bit to see what else there is. Something that does telephone lines as well wouldn’t be a bad idea.

    That would be in addition to the UPS boxen I already have. One sizzled television costs more than the protection against it, and -everything- you buy these days has electronics to fry in it. Even stoves and the fridges.

    1. Those things are a durn good idea. My sister is building a rural house and has one on their power; they think it probably saved the well pump early on. If we do any major electrical rearranging on my house (much older), one of those doohickeys is goin’ in the specs.

      And now that the price range is reasonable (unlike the $1000+ they still were, last I looked) I’d buy the highest-end one I could afford. $50 one way or the other is nothing if it just once saves you replacing some expensive electronic gadget.

      I’d still keep a surge unit and a UPS between the wall and my preciousssessss, because if a really big one comes through, the more layers, the less likely it’ll penetrate ’em all, and computers are a lot more sensitive than washing machines.

      I understand the “forty computers” problem, tho at the moment I can only see ten. I shall avoid going to the other room, or to the basement. 😀

      Strange collectables: I have Jerry Pournelle’s old “Regina” (Compaq workstation from the Win2K era). It weighs 58 pounds and is useful as tits on a boar, but still works perfectly, so I couldn’t let it go to the knackers…

        1. I did upgrade it a bit (more RAM, DVD drive) cuz at the time I thought I’d be using it (then never did), but otherwise it’s still Jerry-intact. I have quite a bit of his cast-off review junk, but something he actually used is, well, different. If it went elsewhere, I’d want it to stay appreciated and intact. And not be dropped on anyone’s foot.

  4. I have all of those defenses on my electronics, but have not had to sacrifice any of them to the lightning gods. (Yet. Wood, wood, where is… ah, the head will have to do.)

    Even living in Arizona, with the intense monsoon thunderstorms, the only experience I’ve had was as a child up in the mountains. Transformer in back of our house got hit and blew up – that was the biggest, baddest torch I have ever seen, and even the downpour couldn’t put it out. Burned something like six feet off of the top of the pole. (Fortunately for our neighbor in back, the rain was enough to put out the flaming bits that were spitting all over the place. His house was only a few feet from the pole.)

    1. Lightning hit my next-door neighbor’s pole… wish I’d taken pictures, but anyway… these were oversized poles because otherwise the wind would take ’em out (and sometimes did anyway) … transformer about halfway up, heavy line at the top. Apparently the bolt bypassed the top and nailed the transformer, which went POOF, split the top 30 feet of the pole, and had a merry fire going in the middle. So it was like this giant Y with a fire at the joint, and the heavy line swaying overhead, now unsupported. Looked like tinker toys gone wrong.

      Another I didn’t get around to photographing…. bad windstorm (reportedly 84mph sustained, and what’s that weird noise?? but…) took out seven high-tension towers in a row just below my place. (The big ones, not those puny things you see in the mountains.) One was so mangled and wrapped around the shredded lines that you couldn’t tell what it was. Repair crew was headed by a guy from Oklahoma… he said yup, don’t care what the weather service denies, THAT was from a tornado. Where they ain’t supposed to be. (SoCal desert.) Tho I’m thinkin’ it was actually a dry hurricane… blew like that for 3 days and had a distinct calm patch in the middle. But no rain.

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