Thursday, 10 May 2018

Life in a power cut

Mid-Sussex seems to be one of those fortunate spots that enjoys a sunny micro-climate free of extremes of ice and snow, storm and tempest. The power lines do not get torn down by winter winds, nor do floods threaten the cables underground.

So we don't often have a power cut where I live in Sussex. It's a positive rarity: an annoyance that occurs perhaps only once every two years, typically because of roadworks, or pipe installation, when the digger might disturb an underground electricity cable. I don't think super-accurate maps can exist of where each type of utility runs underground, and that the various crews engaged in road repair, and gas, water, telephone and broadband cable installation/upgrading simply try to be alert and careful and hope they don't nudge the electrical stuff. Occasionally they must black out a village or two.

It happened last Saturday, at 6.16am. Getting up at 7.15am, I immediately noticed that the central heating hadn't come on, and that the kitchen kettle wasn't working. And no Wi-Fi - the powered router was dead. I checked the consumer unit. No electricity being consumed. A power cut for sure. How bad was it, and how long would it last?

While I pondered the effects of a prolonged power cut - defrosted and wasted food, for example - I wanted some breakfast, and there were immediate solutions. I had a gas cooker. So, having pulled on a warm dressing gown, I popped out to the caravan to retrieve the gas-hob kettle, filled it up, and then lit one of the kitchen cooker burners. And afterwards, I cooked a hot breakfast, and heated up water to wash myself with, and then do the dishes with. It wasn't really chilly in the house. It had been hot the day before, and the day to come would be another brilliantly sunny day, so the house would soon heat up naturally.

But I didn't want to be denied electrical power for too long. It's at moments like this that you want good information above all else. What's actually going on? Can it be fixed quickly? Is there any need to make a special plan to cope with perhaps many hours without power?

My electricity and gas provider, SSE, were supposed to have me on a Priority Contact List, the idea being that they'd be in touch to quell my anxieties (they think I'm a particularly frail and anxious senior citizen) if one of those utilities were to be cut off by their own activities. But nary a word from them - and none since either - a matter I might bring up, if they ask me to complete a satisfaction survey.

I used my phone to go online, and looked at the UK Power Networks website. Any reported problems in my area?...ah, yes, there was one...and I could get text updates to my phone on what was being done, and when power should be back...well, a big yes to that! It seemed that I could get on with my day. Something was being done right now, and I'd hopefully know more very soon.

And indeed, usefully informative texts came thenceforth, in at roughly half-hourly intervals. It was a very local problem, but they initially said it affected 613 properties. Various fixes were being tried, basically to divert the power-supply route around the damaged section, and deal with a permanent repair later. Power was expected to be restored at 9.00am. 

That's what I wanted: to know what was going on. And because I (and presumably dozens of others locally) were expecting action, and adherence to the time-promise given, there would be pressure on the investigating and repair crew to make progress and meet that 9.00am commitment. The lads would be going flat out to meet their own self-imposed target. A heart-warming thought.

This is what real-time communication can bring about. All courtesy of smartphones and 4G!

In the end they encountered more difficulties than they anticipated - and more customers lost their power than first thought - but their text assuring me that electrical power was about to come on again arrived at 9.20am, and the household central heating, appliances and gadgets all sprang to life again at 9.48am. Promise delivered.

There was even a later text, in a tone that I appreciated, as a kind of follow-up report from UK Power Networks:

Update at 10:16 - We can now confirm that all power in the area should be back on. The issue affected 2,150 customers and was caused by a faulty underground cable affecting the [name of my village] area, which our engineers have now diverted the power around. We're really sorry for any disruption this caused. If your power isn't on or there's anything you'd like to talk to us about, call us on 08003163105 which is free from landlines and mobiles.

When they texted me two days later for comment on how the crisis had been handled, I gave them nine out of ten, saying:

The messages updated me on the problem frequently and usefully. Would have scored 10 if the reason for or cause of losing power, and the nature of the permanent fix, had afterwards been made clear. That was all left rather mysterious, and one likes the full story!

In other words, I'd have liked to know who had damaged the cable, doing what, and how badly. But I suppose they couldn't say, as that might have prejudiced the pursuit of compensation and cost-recovery from whoever had been responsible. Someone had broken the cable: it wasn't as if we'd had a morning earthquake here in Mid-Sussex!

Several days later, and I'm wondering what lessons can be learned. Supposing the power cut lad lasted a week? What then?

Being without power for more than a few hours would have been very awkward. For instance:

# No central heating.
# No electric lighting.
# No electrically-powered shower to wash under.
# No plug-in electrical device would work. Yikes, no washing machine!
# Gadgets with batteries couldn't be kept charged up.
# No freezer, no fridge. Food would go off...

On the other hand, there were workarounds:

# There was gas heating in the caravan just outside.
# I had standby candles, and a working torch.
# I could heat up water (and cook to my heart's content) using the gas cooker in the kitchen. Or indeed the gas cooker out in the caravan.
# I could drive my car around, and trickle-charge the phone (and maybe my laptop) from Fiona's USB socket. An hour's drive would half-charge it. And I could make the journey dual-purpose. The phone would give me things like the Internet, radio and TV, and I had 16GB of data monthly to use, enough for a lot of radio and several hours of TV.
# I could buy food on a daily basis and keep it cool using old-fashioned methods, e.g milk bottles in a bucket of cold water. In theory the caravan's fridge could switch to gas operation, but I'd never used it in that way - only with the onboard leisure battery, or powered from the car when towing, or on plug-in main electricity at home or on site - and after eleven years of non-use, continuous gas operation wasn't reliable. (A clear case of 'use it or lose it')
# I did not possess a portable petrol electricity generator. They were noisy, and not to be used for very long because the noise would irritate others. But what about solar panels, permanent or temporarily-erected, linked to a battery?

In short, being without power for a week or two in the summer months would be inconvenient in many ways, but not a matter for despair. The super-versatile and fast-charging phone could step forward as a key device for both communication and (candle-lit) evening entertainment.

A pity it couldn't iron my (hand-washed) clothes, or blow-dry my (washed in the kitchen sink) hair...

1 comment:

  1. We recently bought a DAB Roberts radio which I filled up with rechargeable batteries and it works a treat for days on end. I do wish we had an old fashioned gas fire in some room, so many new ones come with electrical! connections which defeats the whole purpose of having gas.

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