Above: This photo appeared on the front page of today’s Seattle Times. It was taken literally just around the corner from our home. Photo: AMANDA SMITH / THE SEATTLE TIMES
I’ve learned a lot over the past few days. Things like:
* You never realized how much water you drink… until there is none to be had.
* Concrete can explode if subjected to heat
* No matter how well prepared you THINK you are, you aren’t.
* Never underestimate the power of doughnuts!
How have I learned these things? Well let me start at the beginning. Last Wednesday I picked up my niece, Erika at Seattle University and brought her to our home for the Thanksgiving holiday. She’s down from Alaska going to school in Seattle. The holiday was fine, we had a great time and I stocked the freezer with over a dozen batches of my famous Turkey & Green Chile Enchiladas. On Sunday we even went to the tree farm nearby and obtained our Christmas tree for this year.
Above: The view east towards the mountains from my front porch first thing Monday. Note the light on the barn is “on”. Also note the neighbor’s house is visible. Usually we can’t see them due to tree branches and a stand of bamboo along the far fence on their property. It has been flattened by the snow. The big fir tree in our pasture has already lost a bunch of branches.
The plan was that I’d head back to work on Monday and bring Erika back to Seattle with me. The weather service predicted a bit of snow for Monday, but I didn’t think much of it. Snow is not that uncommon here, but it rarely gets very bad, and the usual pattern is a bit of snow, then a few hours later it melts. In fact up here in the foothills where we live, it snows more often than down below, and usually just driving down the hill to the river gets you back to rain. Sunday night it started snowing lightly. We awoke Monday morning to about a foot (31 cm) of snow. I went out on the porch and took some photos, and soaked in the beauty of it all. It was eerily quiet. The only sound was the occasional loud crack of a tree branch under the weight of the snow. I went out to the barn and turned the heater on out there… for the cats mostly, but also to help the pipes. Nicholas went out and started making a snowman (I told him to stay out from under the trees!) Then I cooked a big breakfast for everyone. The TV said Arlington Schools were closed. Seattle was still just experiencing rain, so Seattle U was still in session. We planned on trying to make it out and down to Seattle, when suddenly at 8:27 AM, the power went out.
Up here in Hydroelectric power land, we run everything off of electricity. Water is abundant, and electricity cheap, especially when compared to other regions. We are also on a well for our water and rely on electricity to operate the well and pump. We have experienced power outages before, usually in conjunction with wind storms. They rarely last more than a few hours. We lit a fire in the fireplace.
Our Comcast Cable still worked (the TV didn’t obviously) so our Internet access stayed up. Our phones are Comcast’s VOIP offering so they still worked too. I was able to post an update to our support site at work notifying our clients of the weather and it’s possible impact on our operations, at least in terms of human interaction. I called the office and let them know I’d be staying home. Then I went out to chop wood.
Unfortunately a windstorm earlier in the month of November had knocked over our wood pile and subsequent rains (did I mention this has been the wettest month in Pacific Northwest history?) have soaked the wood, so it was pretty wet. Our fires never really got very hot. We spent the day reading, and playing the classic board game “Risk” (I won… hint: Never play me at Risk. I rarely lose. In fact when I play I usually find everyone else making alliances to defeat me first! Erika was new to playing with me and did not follow this advice from her cousins.) Later, Nicholas was invited over to a friends house and gladly took the chance to go somewhere warm.
When the entire day went by and the power never returned, we started thinking about possibilities. We have an old 7500 Watt portable generator that somebody gave to me years ago. I’ve never turned it on, much less hooked it up to the house. I figured I’d give it a go. I spent the better part of two hours trying to get it started, even resorting to starter fluid(!) and it would not run for more than a second or two. Darkness set in before I was able to get any further. I’m typing this three days later and my arm is still sore from yanking that damn starting cord several hundred times.
Our phones and Internet access went down about five hours into the outage when the cable modem’s internal battery backup ran dry.
The UPS on the fish tank also gave up the ghost sometime that day.
We all climbed into Sue’s Jeep Liberty and went down into town to get some supplies and maybe dinner. Sue had important work to so and decided that her business could pay for a new genset. We went to the new Costco down at Smokey Point, but they didn’t have any. The Lowe’s across the freeway had two coming up from Lynnwood on a truck that was expected in 90 minutes. Sue bought one and we went over to a pizza place for dinner and to pass the time. It was packed, but we had an enjoyable dinner. The Seattle Seahawks were on Monday Night Football on the TV at the pizza place… this gave us an indication of what was going on in the region… they were playing in a snowstorm. If it was snowing in Seattle, we could expect more bad weather up here in the north where it was always worse than Seattle! Lowe’s called just as we were finishing up dinner and we went to go pick up the genset. We arrived 7 minutes before they were to close, and even though we had already paid for the generator and it was sitting right behind the counter the guy there made us stand around and wait for an unbearable amount of time. I really needed to know if the box contained everything I was going to need to hook up the system… but when I walked behind the counter to look at the box the Lowe’s guy freaked out and made me wait on the other side. I can appreciate his perspective but I would be a VERY UNHAPPY LOWE’S CUSTOMER if I got the damn thing home and could not use it because I was lacking a cable or simple fitting that I should have bought at the same time! So he FINALLY figures out that yes, we are who we say we are and we can take the genset, but now they have to close the store and I insist on opening the box and at least looking at the instructions before I’ll leave. I know from my earlier attempt at hooking up the other genset that I’ll need a male plug to backfeed electricity into our home system… I open up the “quick start guide” and all I see are the usual legal warning/disclaimers/CYA labels that every damn equipment manufacturer plasters all over EVERYTHING nowadays. I finally glimpse a diagram showing the included bits and there is a male plug, with twin ends even, and I assume we are good to go. By now every Smokey Point Lowe’s employee is drilling my skull with “GTF outta here” stares so they can get home before the second wave of the storm hits. Chris & I wrestle the big box into the back of the Jeep and head home.
Chris & I assemble the genset in the garage, by the glow of the Jeep’s headlights. It was then I realized that the included cable would NOT interface with the house’s wiring and we’d have to power items directly until I could source the right cable. I get the genset running and leave them watching TV and one sharing one light, while I run into town for more gasoline. (it is a shame we couldn’t buy a small Diesel-powered unit, as then the fuel will be free… more on that thought later.) Upon my return I noted that most of our area had power, and some investigation found a down tree, one driveway to the north of us that had cut power to just five houses, ours included. This could be bad. Utility crews would obviously concentrate their efforts of larger outages, so we could be out for a while. I topped up the genset tank and went to bed.
Above: The same views as above (almost) on Tuesday morning.
I woke before sunrise, and listened to the generator humming along… and just a few minutes later it stopped. I pulled on my boots and coat and went outside to refill it. Another 6-8 inches (15-20cm) of snow had fallen, bringing the total to somewhere around 18″ (45cm). It was shockingly COLD. All of a sudden the enormity of it all exploded in my brain. I fired up the generator and started checking all the outside water faucets… opening them if I could. Most were frozen. I went out to the barn, scene of most of our frozen pipe disasters in the past and found everything pretty solid. Braving the possibility of getting killed by a falling branch, I went out and found the water shut-off for the barn in the wooded area north of our house and stumbled around in the dark of our basement to shut off the well. I tossed the empty gas cans and propane bottle into the Jeep and roared off in search of flammable petroleum products and electrical wiring gear! The sun was up and it was that worst-case-scenario of Pacific Northwest weather… the arctic high pressure following a snowfall. This means clear weather, but bitter cold. It took me four stops to find a gas station who would/could sell me propane – and the one that did had to thaw out the frozen dispensing equipment – Everything was coated in ice! I stopped at Arlington Hardware and bought some cable and a 240V 40A fitting to get the genset powering the house. Unlike the big-box Lowe’s out at Smokey Point, the guys at Arlington Hardware were very helpful. I had the gear, and the advice I needed. Upon arrival home, I made the pipes my priority. I fired up the propane torch and started thawing out the exterior faucets. I really could not just blast the faucets themselves with the torch, so I directed the flame at them from a distance, hoping to melt the ice within. I started with the faucet near the garage. I was able to melt enough to get the hose off and give me some room to start on heating the brass faucet itself. This I did by directing the flame onto the concrete of my driveway about a foot away from the faucet. This was dull work, but it suddenly got a bit too exciting when I was startled by a loud POP! and something flying at my face! I spun my head and ducked as fast as I could, but whatever it was hit me just between my right eye and the bridge of my nose. Recovering my wits, I realized it was a chunk of concrete, which had exploded from the heat. The driveway was missing a 2″ diameter, 1/4″ deep (5cm x 1.5cm) chunk of concrete, and the center section of it had just bounced off my eye. There was no bleeding that I could see after I touched my face with my gloves, so I went back to work thawing. Working my way around the house and barn I was able to open up most of them. I left the ones at the back of the barn by my Diesel-making operation. For one I had already installed ball valves and shut off water to most of it last summer, and for another I have no interest in playing with fire amongst a few hundred gallons of flammable liquid. The veggie oil/homebrew Diesel doesn’t ignite easily, but putting it out would be VERY difficult given the situation.
Above: My burned eye. Sorry for the crappy photo… it is tough to take a macro shot of yourself! Even with an auto-focus and slow-flash setting… I took a dozen and this is the only one that wasn’t washed out and completely blurred! Consider yourself lucky as it doesn’t look as bad in this shot as it does in real life. It looks a lot worse. You can tell exactly how much my eye was closed when it hit me by where the burned skin is and isn’t. It hurts like hell and drives me nuts.
I felt like an idiot for not wearing some sort of safety glasses while running the torch. I usually wear my glacier goggles or safety glasses when I use any sort of machinery in the yard or barn, but it was cloudy (the sun was out down below but the clouds were still clinging to the mountains and foothills) and I wasn’t really thinking about myself so much as saving our pipes. A few hours later the reality sunk in that this flying chunk of concrete that hit me was super-heated, so my injury was in the form of a burn. Ouch. The pipes however were all open and I hopefully caught it before any burst. I’ll trade a bursting driveway and a sore face for broken pipes any day.
I had plenty to occupy me, but I’m sure Sue, Erika, and Chris were going stir crazy in the house. I told Sue to have Chris get the snow off the glass-topped table on the deck, so that it wouldn’t break, but otherwise I didn’t really deal with them much that day. I made the plug that I hoped would allow us to power up the household, in at least a limited fashion. The house has an outlet in the garage that appears to be designed for a portable genset. It didn’t work. I did not know if that outlet is even wired in, so I moved the genset to the back porch and wired it to a stove outlet downstairs… same result. The genset breaker would trip about 15 seconds after turning it on. I’m not an electrician, so I shelved the idea for later and concentrated on what I know could get done. I went back into town with Sue and bought two space heaters… powerful enough heat a room without overloading the genset. I also grabbed some LONG extension cords to run all the way from the back porch to the other end of the house where the Cable comes in to power the Cable modem and hence our phones. I also plugged in the refrigerator, the wireless base station, and my IP phone that allows me to be “in the office” when I’m at home. That done I set to finding some dry wood in the pile of firewood. Down near the bottom, but not the very bottom I managed to find three wheelbarrow’s worth. It was about 14Â°F (-10Â°C) at this point and if the wood was wet, it was frozen solid. The dry stuff was brittle and would split even with a light blow from a hatchet! No need to swing the big axe with my sore arms (from trying to start the dead genset on Monday.) Sue of course bought fire wood from some guy who managed to chop down the knottiest Alder tree in the state of Washington, so splitting this stuff has been a royal PITA. I was grateful for the cold Tuesday afternoon!
Sue spent the day harassing the Snohomish County PUD about our power situation. They were completely overwhelmed and I pity the folks who she talked to as she does not deal with Government types well, as she does it all day long for a living.
I also shut down the genset and changed the oil. I managed to do this trick in less than 5 minutes and have the genset running again.
Evening came and we went out to La Hacienda for dinner. I hadn’t eaten all day so I was very hungry! I literally ate every bit of my dinner, some Carne Asada. It was nice to sit in a lighted, heated environment.
I read some emails that night, and iChatted with a few folks. I don’t know how coherent I was with anyone, so sorry folks if I wasn’t! I had checked in with the office a few times. It was weird to have Internet access, but no power. They seemed to have everything well in hand (even though there was plenty of weather-related drama and tough commutes!) I slept like a rock that night, waking once to refill the genset.
BTW: My NetFlix “theme” this week was John Carpenter/Kurt Russell… “Big Trouble in Little China”, “Escape from New York” (and LA), and the ironic and iconic: “The Thing”… heh. I know how to pick em! 😉
Above: Dawn on Wednesday. Note that the mountains are visible now through a gap in the trees, just over the left side of the swingset. I’ve never seen them from our property as the trees have always obscured the view to the east. So many branches have fallen off due to the snow.
Above: Cold! I’ve seen much colder temps in my life, but rarely around here!
Above: The weight of the snow cracked a 4×12 beam supporting our deck. Great, something else I have to fix!
I woke up to a house at 39Â°F and 12Â°F outside. This was really getting old! I was heading into Seattle today, and figured that I shouldn’t leave Sue alone with some form of transport in case of emergency. The snow was way too deep, and slick for the Jetta. We have an old pickup in the barn and I figured I’d put it in 4WD and park it in the front of the house for her. I went out to the barn and for some reason could not get the damn thing in 4WD! I slid around for a while, trying to navigate the tight fence clearances around the barn paddocks and gates. Lots of spinning wheels and noise, and I somehow managed to avoid hitting any fences. You should see the damage to the ground though. So I get it out of the barn paddocks and onto the driveway and it gets stuck on the steep hill of our driveway and sinks up to the axles! With a lot of effort I manage to get it unstuck, but can not get up the driveway. I manage to get it back into the barn paddock, but now it is stuck in front of the barn door. sigh. I climb under it to find the electrical wires to the front axle are cut! WTF? I’ll leave that investigation for another day.
We all piled into the Jeep and went to a neighbor’s house, where Nick was staying. We dropped Sue off and she enjoyed a hot shower (and walked home.) I took the boys into town for school (started two hours late), and drove Erika down to Seattle. The roads were fine, once on the freeway. I’m sure she was glad to get back to “civilization.” Seattle had very little snow. I stopped by the office and grabbed a shower there. It felt great. I put in an appearance, and headed home. We went out for dinner again, this time trying the Eagle Crest just south of the Les Schwab tire store downtown. The one benefit of this adventure is dining out! The weather service said another storm was headed our way, with snow turning to rain by midnight or so. After dinner I dropped off the family at home and went back out to get more gasoline. As I left the driveway I had one of those life-changing moments… something told me to go east instead of west at the “T” intersection at the end of our street. The nearest gas station is the Trafton General Store due north of us, but via a twisty, hilly route. I love going this way in the Jaguar, as it is a fun, challenging drive. Why my inner voice told me to go this way I’ll never know.
As I rounded a corner and passed a point due east of our home, between us and Ebey Mountain I encountered a PUD crew working on power lines. I drove by and continued through the dark and twisty road down to where it meets Jim Creek Road, then up along the west slope of Ebey Mountain and down to Trafton on the river and SR 530. I filled the gas cans and was inspired as I went into the store to pay. I grabbed a dozen doughnuts and another quart of oil for the genset and headed back up the hill to home via the same route up Jim Creek. I stopped where the PUD trucks all were and got out with the doughnuts… I walked to every truck, but nobody was around. Weird.
I grabbed a pen from Sue’s Jeep and wrote a note on the doughnut box. It said in so many words: “Thanks from an Arlington Heights resident. Keep up the good work! By the way, there is another outage one block to the west, where a tree on [street] has taken out a power line serving about 5 houses.” I put the box of doughnuts on the front seat of a PUD pickup (the supervisor perhaps?) and went home.
When I arrived I went into the garage and found some paint, a brush, and a cardboard box. I painted “PUD Help” and a arrow on both sides pointing in the same direction and took it out to the road, pointing down the neighbor’s driveway where the down tree was located.
Our third night of sub-freezing sleep in a cold, dark, waterless home. Sue and Chris slept in the family room downstairs, around the fireplace. I stayed upstairs in the master bedroom, mostly because I’m allergic to Christopher’s cat, which lives downstairs. Nick was staying at a friend’s house down the road.
I once again awoke before dawn and refilled the genset’s tank… this time before it ran out, just. It was raining and around 34Â°F (1Â°C). I’ve never been so happy to see rain. I have seen rain and warm weather obliterate several feet of snow here in the Pacific Northwest in a matter of hours. Of course that causes a whole set of new problems, but to be honest I would welcome a new set after these past few days! It was not to be as it never really got much warmer all day, but I did see progress. Sue had to go to Court up in Skagit County, so she took the boys to school (another late start today) and I stayed home to feed the genset and take care of things.
One thing I needed to do was address the firewood situation if possible. We were almost out of dry firewood. At least the easy to get stuff. Somewhere under the snow was more, covered in a tarp. I figured I’d spend the afternoon digging it out and splitting it.
I don’t really recall what things I did this morning… but I do recall an overall fatigue. I was really tired of this limbo existence. I miss being able to open a tap and have water. To be able to walk into a room and flick the lightswitch. To make a hot meal. I realize that a significant portion of the planet’s current population lives, and the vast majority of it’s past population lived, just like this. So I really can’t complain about this situation. I was growing tired of it though. The kicker was the fact that at any moment, everything could be right back to “normal”…
I was sitting at my desk around mid-day, when something made me glance over my shoulder ….and I saw the bathroom light on! I jumped up and ran to the kitchen to check the clock on the oven. It said 8:30, which meant that the power had come on sometime in the last 90 seconds or so. Whoo hoo! I do not recall the actual time to be honest, I was too happy to care.
I phoned Sue, and left her a happy voicemail. I then went about the process of turning on the well and water system and checking for leaks. I turned it on, and was going around the house checking when the phone rang. It was a neighbor, telling me that a PUD crew was in front of her house, and asking if she should flag them down and send them our way. I thanked her, and let her know that our power had JUST come back and I was checking for broken pipes.Sure enough, the exterior faucet on the east side of the house had broken and was profusely leaking. I shut the water back off, and put a temporary fix on it, and turned the water back on. It appeared that this was the only issue in the house. I left the water to the barn off as the weather forecast looks like many more freezing nights in the coming week.
I regret that I wasn’t able to get out and thank the linemen who restored our power. By the time I got out they were gone and on to the next job. I suspect they’ll be at it for a while.
I did manage to get the pickup away from the barn door. I also got the Jetta out of the barn and tried to get it either to the back of the house, or by the front door. I’d like to be able to go to work tomorrow and if it freezes tonight there is no way I’ll get it out of the barn then. I could not get up the hill in front of the house, so I left it at the end of the driveway, pointing towards the road. If I can navigate the 2/10ths of a mile (.32 Km) out to the road, I can probably get all the way to Seattle. If I can’t, then I’ll just be stuck another day.
The boys came home from school and we cleaned up the place, and we all enjoyed a wonderful hot dinner tonight! It will be nice to not have the hum of a generator tonight!
* One minor plumbing issue. It can probably wait until summer.
* A major deck support beam. That is job #1… probably for this weekend.
* All the tropical fish died. 🙁
* My face from exploding superheated concrete.
I plan on getting some professional electrical help to either hook up this gasoline genset to the house, OR better yet, find some better Diesel alternative (like a Lister) that I can run with my (free!) home-brew. More on that as it develops.
Speaking of Diesel, Sue’s Jeep Liberty CRD performed like a champ throughout the whole week. It always started fine, and handled whatever driving conditions we put it in. Never lost traction, always handled well. The Jetta started right up this morning too. I love Diesels!