31 Jul 2011
Thursday week ago (21st), in the horrible pouring rain at about 8pm, the electricity in my house started flickering, then died after about 30 seconds. I turned off some switches, then went outside to see if the neighbours had power. They did, so I went to my switchboard, which had a horrible electrical burning smell and was making dreadful hissing sounds, but I couldn’t see the source or any smoke. Absolutely flummoxed, I went to one of my neighbours’ houses. Her power had remained in the flicky state. While I was there, we learnt that several other neighbours also had flickering power. I went back home and rang Energy Australia. And this point I still had a phone line, but it was very noisy. On reporting the fault, I was told 8 am was when someone would be sent. Understandable, given the pouring rain.
What I wasn’t told by neighbours (until days later), was that up near the road (my house is down a driveway, about 80 metres from the road) there was sparks flying from the electrical cables on a pole. About 9.30ish I was told that the private power pole beside the common driveway was smoking or steaming. I learnt one other neighbour was without power, and also phone – they had been out when this had first started. It was freezing cold, and I really didn’t want to venture out in the rain, so I went to bed.
At 11.30pm I was woken by the other neighbour without power. The gas main was leaking. Energy Australia were in attendance as the whole street by now had reported the flicky-flicky, raising the status of the fault, and the fire brigade and gas people were in attendance for the gas leak. The big unhappy news was that the fault was located on our side of the electrical network boundary (the first pole off the street) thus it was up to us (in my case, my landlord) to engage an electrician capable of pole and underground work to restore power services. Power was cut to the whole street while they disconnected me and two neighbours (I’ve never met the second affected neighbour as she lives here only part-time). Then the rest of the street got their power back at about 2am.
On Friday morning I found I had no phone line and had to report that to Telstra. I had hot enough water in the hot water tank for a shower in the morning. After seeing the neighbours, I saw the charred remains of a conduit and the capped gas supply in a ditch filed with rain water. Charred remains of a cable are visible at the base of the pole.
My neighbour and I arranged a tag team around each of our school commitments (she works in the library of another nearby school) to be at home for the tradespeople. As I had to teach 8.20-9.40, she informed my landlord’s agent at 9 am and it was agreed to engage a common electrician to the job to assist progress.
I made a quick dash to Kmart for a portable butane gas stove and gas cans and batteries and got back after 10am. By then there was a $7000 quote for the electrical work in the process of being approved and the gas people were in the process of fixing the gas main and were supposedly finished. As the damage was a fire (which probably burned for about 2.5 hours), it was hopefully all covered by insurance. Then the gas people hit a snag. There was yet another burnt section to replace. So they dug up a section about 15 meters further down and lined the broken pipe with another pipe.
So, the electrician had to come back to see the altered situation. The $7000 quote was out the window now as a much greater length of conduit would need replacement, but there are trees obstructing that. Late on Friday afternoon, I was told a new figure of $30,000. My neighbour contacted her insurers, and an assessor was to come out on Monday. She also arranged generators (mine at my landlord’s expense), which arrived after dark. They didn’t work.
Friday was freezing cold. I gave Calli a hot water bottle with water heated on the butane gas stove since by this point she was whining about the cold. Thankfully, I have a wood combustion heater that I rarely use as I’m hopeless at chopping firewood. So I brought in the firewood I had stored in the garage and lit the wood heater in the evening. I used torches and candles for lighting. The cat and I had two hot water bottles with us in bed. We were warmer than Thursday night.
On Saturday, the hire place the generators were from sent out a mechanic who got my generator going at about midday, and got parts for the neighbour’s one and had it going some time later. The generator ran the fridge and either a light or the television, but had to be switched off at 10pm as the racket was intolerable. The neighbours were able to run their fridge and gas heater (which needs electricity to work). The rest of the weekend was a blur of heating water on the gas stove for washing, making sure I had petrol for the generator, dry firewood for the heater, doing some school marking that couldn’t wait and getting some laundry done at my brother’s home (and a shower to wash my hair). I couldn’t start the generator without help, and pulled all the muscles in my arms while trying. All the carrying things also put strain on my knees, and by late Sunday I could barely walk. On Sunday, my neighbour and I were fearful a noise complaint would be made about our generators, but thankfully it didn’t happen. Calli was very upset by the generator noise, and I felt it wasn’t worth all the cost and effort for what could be done with bags of party ice – most of the fridge contents hadn’t lasted the 40 hours without power before the generator, and then it was on only 10-14 hours a day. The freezer contents were a total write-off.
On Monday there was a stream of insurance people and electricians who dug various holes and concluded the damage is storm damage, resulting in fire in the underground power supply beside the private pole. Initially I was told all three houses were insured with the same insurer, but it later transpired that the third house (the woman I’ve never met), is with a different insurer. Various reports had to be written and processed. There was more of the same on Tuesday, but they finally resolved to put us on a larger generator that would power our whole houses (including hot water) and which was quiet enough to run 24 hours a day. (My neighbour and her family have a cat and dog, and I have Calli, so temporary accommodation was not a simple solution.)
On Monday evening, my generator died when the electrical connection to the spark plug snapped. The mechanic had to come back on Tuesday morning and get it started again. It was simply taped up with electrical tape. The resulting poor connection made the generator produce more electrical noise. I had lost patience with the small generator by this point, and was hanging on to the promise of the large generator on Wednesday morning. Telstra got both the phone lines back on – I really don’t want to go into that side saga – I got terribly upset by some miscommunication over it. Tuesday was a bad, bad day. Somehow through all of this I managed to be at school for all my classes, and go back and forth in my lessons off – very, very tiring!
Late on Wednesday, the big, diesel generator arrived and was connected to the two houses. It is being maintained with fuel by the electricians. It was a joy to have hot water again, and I was able to get most stuff up and running again (the freezer is staying off for the time being and the cordless phones were all flat as a tack). While it isn’t too noisy, the low hum resonates in parts of the house, like in front of the pantry cupboard. It is noisiest in my bedroom, so I’m sleeping on the single bed in the spare room.
On Thursday evening I cleared out the freezer for bin night. Dreadful job. Then I was up very late marking assignments that had to be returned to Year 12 before next week’s HSC Trials. On Friday I was exhausted. Yesterday was much, much better as I got plenty of sleep. I finally got to do some knitting!
After I went to bed last night, the generator stopped. As I’m a tenant, not much gets communicated to me, so I don’t even have the electrician’s number and I wasn’t shown how to fuel the generator or start it (my neighbour was shown). So I did nothing about it, since there’s nothing I could do about it, and went back to sleep. It was started again around midnight.
They might start work to reconnect us on Monday, or they might not. Every time I’m told something, it contradicts what I was told before. I still have no idea how far up the cables the fire went – because of what I reported about the sounds and smell at my switchboard, it may be burnt right up to there. The electricians probably know, since they connected the generator up through the switchboard, but I wasn’t told anything. Things are much better with the present generator, so I can manage until whenever it will be. I’ll just be “pleasantly surprised” when I am put back on the electricity grid.