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July 20, 2005

Nerdville Hit by Power Failure

“WTF?” I asked myself.  Yesterday afternoon I was on my deck when something electronic squawked.  Didn’t sound like any squeal I’ve ever heard my laptop computer make but I checked all eight open apps anyway.  Nada and the WiFi connection still looked good; batteries had plenty of juice left.  Nothing strange about my mobile phone;  no incoming or alerts there.

It was the simplest device on the table; the cordless phone was complaining that it couldn’t find its base station.  Since the base station can’t walk away and the cordless phone hadn’t moved lately, I deduced that something must be wrong with the base station.  When I went inside, I DIDN’T hear the air conditioning and I DID hear panicked beeping from my UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).  So now I know what happened.

I checked the mains in the garage and they were OK.  Didn’t see any neighbors around and, in the daylight, couldn’t tell whether they had power or not but assumed that it wasn’t just me.  A power failure made sense.  The THI has been over a 100 degrees for the last three days; there have been thunderstorms all around; and we get our power from JCP&L (Jersey Central Power & Light) which has been improving but has a way to go.

By this time my UPS had shut the desktop computer plugged into it and itself down.  It is only “uninterruptible” for up to five minutes of power loss.  So my cable modem and WiFi hub went down also.  The laptop computer beeped in alarm for its lost connectivity.  To its credit, it looks like Comcast broadband stayed up until I ran out of power for the modem.

The cordless phone wouldn’t stop beeping its alarm and refused to allow itself to be turned off.  I had to disembowel it by removing its lithium battery.

My mobile phone rang.  It was a call from Mary saying she had a call from the alarm company on her mobile telling us we had a power failure.  Her call to our house was forwarded to my mobile phone automatically by Vonage which had detected that my Vonage phone – connected through the now powerless cable modem – was no longer online.  I had programmed Vonage through its web interface to forward calls this way in the event that I experienced an IP failure.  Apparently the forwarding hadn’t yet taken effect when the alarm company tried to call me at home because I later discovered that call in my voice mail.

Mary herself was in a Red Cross ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) delivering cold drinks and cleaning supplies to people who were returning to homes flooded by the previous day’s thunderstorms.  She said that power was on where she was so I now knew it wasn’t an everywhere failure.  We agreed that she would fill her car with gas before coming home in case no pumps were working here.

I called the power outage number for JCP&L.  A nice robot with a female voice told me that they had implemented a voice response system and I should listen carefully to the instructions.  After her instructions, a male robot asked me questions.  He informed me that the phone number I called from was associated with two addresses and gave me the first part of each one for confirmation.  Neither of the addresses was mine and it’s hard for me to imagine why the cellphone number I’ve had for six years should be associated with anyone else’s address; but that’s a mystery for another day.  He offered to let me speak the phone number that my account is associated with but refused to understand me.  Finally he relented and let me touchtone in the number.  He then recited back my true address and gave me a trouble ticket number.  He hung up after reminding me not to touch any downed powerlines (robots are especially sensitive about stray electricity).

I called the alarm company back and they told me that they had gotten quite a few power-out alarms from my neighborhood so now I know I’m not alone.  But they were too busy calling people to help me diagnose the extent of the outage which now I felt I had to know.

I have a flashlight-radio-siren thing with a crankable generator so I cranked it up to listen to local radio stations.  Couldn’t get many stations except for national crank callins and didn’t know if that was because it is a lousy radio or because the local radio stations were silenced by the power failure.  Could have gone out to my car and turned on its radio with known receptivity but decided I’d been offline too long.

So I put my Verizon 1xEVDO card in my computer, booted it up, and went back on the Internet at slow but usable speed.  No screaming headlines on CNN or The New York Times so it’s nothing very big.  Nothing on the site of the Asbury Park Press either but I don’t know how up-to-date that is.  I looked on the website of JCP&L’s parent, FirstEnergy.  They have an outage page but it was blank.  According to the legend on the page, that meant that there were no major outages.  They don’t give the criteria for “major”.

I took a break from my diagnosing to do something practical and turned off the air conditioning to help the power come back without too much of a surge.  Probably should have unplugged the freezer and refrigerator too but I didn’t.

Next decided to try to find out whether Verizon POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) was still working.  Prior to the electrical failure, it had recovered from the outage I blogged about Sunday.  Embarrassingly, all my telephone handsets require wall power which, of course, they weren’t getting or batteries which I hadn’t installed.  Should have kept one simple black phone.  So, no fault of Verizon, couldn’t use that line either.  Thinking it over, I realized that the call to the alarm company informing them of the power outage went over the POTS line so looks like it was working even though I couldn’t use it.

Power had now been out for a little over an hour.  I called the JCP&L number back to see if I could get a menu with more information.  The robots were as polite as ever but all they would let me do was reenter my information.  Once I did, they reminded me that a trouble ticket was already filed and DID add some of the information I wanted: the failure would be fixed by 7:14PM, about an hour and a half away.

As it turned out, the printer beeped to signal it had returned to life in about fifteen minutes.

I picked up the phone with the Verizon POTS line, still curious to see whether that was working.  A woman robot said “dialing the central station” – strange.  I hung up and lifted the handset again. Same voice, same message.  Turns out that robot is part of the inhome security system and she was calling her central station to report power back on.  The Verizon line worked fine once she was through with it.

Mary came home in time to point out that I hadn’t done anything useful during the whole outage other than to turn off the air conditioning.  I threatened not to reset the clocks on the microwave, stove, and sprinkler system if she continued being critical.  The printer reset its own clock from the computer; I re-emboweled the cordless phone; and life in Nerdville went back to normal.

This post is available here as a podcast.

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