Things that go THUMP, thump in the afternoon

A week ago, it was a dark and stormy afternoon, March on its way out like a lion, both of us typing away in the office when there came a great THUMP, and a medium thump behind us, and then our screens went dark. What the...? The view out the east windows was all spruce, as in, the formerly 50 foot tall spruce, now 50 feet north-and-south, with its stout-enough upper end over the top of our downed powerline.

(Click images to embiggen; outside the image to dismiss.)

It wasn't a complete surprise, storms have caused outages before, even though the more usual way is a squirrel across a transformer, POP goes the rodent, and power for a couple dozen houses. But this was personal. Just our tree, our house, no dead squirrels.

The good news was, it clean missed the house. Were it not for that pesky electrical service line, it would have just been the exciting end to a tree that we kind of wanted to remove anyway, overgrown for the spot it was in. Since it wasn't the dead of winter, being without power for the gas furnace for a while was not a big deal.

With 30 to 40 mph wind, gusts to 50, through the afternoon and into the evening, it was a busy day for Idaho Power, and I figured it would be a while before someone would get to our place; there were several other, larger outages reported in the phone message before I got to report mine. We all kept a safe distance with the downed line mixed up with our downed tree and the storm still going.

The lineman showed up a little before dark, sized things up, made the first cut on the tree to partially clear the line's path, taped the live wires, wove the three lines back together, and tied them off on one of the plumbing vents. Then summarized what next: "You need an electrician." The service mast had been bent over before the disconnect, and the wires from that to the meter likely damaged. News is, Idaho Power's jurisdiction stops at the the splice and tie to the mast.

I phoned a retired electrician friend for a recommendation, ended up with Quality Electric, their man arriving just as the daylight was about gone. He sized things up, and suggested we might want to have them come out during the day rather than try to fix it right away. The hourly rate is 50% higher at night... and besides, working on electrical stuff in the dark seems dodgy.

That turned out to be good advice, well-taken. We walked in the dark and rain to the local burger joint for a late dinner, and stayed warm enough overnight with an extra blanket. The next day was sunny after the cold front, a pleasant day to assess the situation, and for working outside.

The crew of two was out first thing in the morning, and the job expanded from a new mast, replace the wires to the meter and a quick patch on the roof to... a bit more than that. This old house has its original wiring, and Code is a bit more stringent than it was 50+ years ago. We'd need a new meter base... and panel... with a breaker for the line through the attic to the main panel in the garage, and a separate ground for that... and oh, the building inspector took a look at it and said a BIGGER mast, with guywires. So the next tree (there is a next tree, btw, our #1 specimen, a 60 to 70 ft. fir) would... tear up the roof and eave instead of the mast. Maybe.

Soon after, with the sun low in a storm-washed, clear blue sky, the last day of March, another Idaho Power lineman connected our dots and plugged the meter back in, 26 hours after the tree fell.

Which left... a good bit of "yardwork," as time and energy permit.

After writing this up and editing the images, I went back and fetched the weather data, using the National Weather Service's elegant interactive portal. The presentation is biased to "right now," naturally enough, but in addition to the stock 2-day view, there's a link for 7 days' data, and a readable enough parameter in the querystring for the number of hours you want to see. Edit that to show the last 10 days at the Boise airport (it'll go up to 30 days 720 hours, I see by inspecting the javascript that makes it happen), and then "click and drag in the plot area to zoom in," et voilá!

NWS data for March 30-31

The powerful cold front dropped an inch of driving rain in the previous 6 hours, and one of the peak gusts above the sustained 25-30 mph wind blew our tree over. The wind continued through the night and most of the next day, but not so gusty, and under a clear sky.

So that was all jolly to put together for the record of the event. I looked in my computers event log to see the approximate time... but the timestamp on the first photo I took out the window with my phone is closer to the instant: 3:52 pm. With the whizzy new digital electric meter we've got, I figured I could look up the usage on Idaho Power's site and see when the power came back on, and of course the flatline for the outage.


Here's a surprise: with the powerline physically disconnected, and our meter unplugged, the power company shows non-zero usage for most of the "readings" during the 26 hour outage. The area under this graph of their data for our account adds up to 2 kWh that their system says we used. Somehow. That's about two bits worth of juice, and wouldn't cover the gas for one of the linemen to stop by the house, but still. A disconnected meter shouldn't be reporting usage, don't you think?

Graph of our usage per Idaho Power