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Fun with natural gas

Started: 2013-12-08 13:35:06

Submitted: 2013-12-08 15:35:05

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator survives a major natural gas outage in sub-zero temperatures

For Thanksgiving this year, Kiesa decided to fly out with Calvin to visit her mother a week early, leaving me to fend for myself at home. I cooked many of my meals using the cast iron skillet, even though we have a glass cooktop in our house and the manual officially discourages using a skillet without really disclosing why. (Everyone's best guess is that the heavy skillet is more likely than other cookware to crack the glass cooktop.) So when Kiesa mumbled something about getting cookware for Christmas I mumbled something about getting a stove that would officially support our cookware of choice (I had a large chunk of stock vest the week before). In our neighborhood getting a basic electric coil cooktop would be considered a downgrade, so the obvious choice is gas. Kiesa found a good deal on a good stove; upon returning to Colorado after Thanksgiving we visited Lowes and decided the stove would work for us, but we still needed to determine the feasibility of running a gas line to the kitchen.

We had only an electrical outlet at the stove, but at first glance I thought it might not be too difficult to run a gas line; our basement hanging ceiling seemed like it'd afford the opportunity to remove the tiles and achieve complete freedom in running lines wherever one's fancy required. (I've done the same for Ethernet, but that's a somewhat easier task.) I'm perfectly happy to run my own low-voltage Ethernet wiring but I prefer to call real professionals to deal with things that might kill me or destroy my house, like natural gas. Kiesa called our plumbing company of choice and they showed up over the weekend after Thanksgiving to give us a quote. We ran into trouble with the size of the gas line running from the meter into the furnace and water heater (which also fed the gas fireplace), and in getting the line through the ceiling under the kitchen. The quote came on just under $3k, which was far more than we actually wanted to pay, so we quickly abandoned the idea.

Sometime last week Kiesa thought about our disaster-planning contingencies and contemplated the acquisition of a generator. Our furnace, water heater, and fireplace are all powered by natural gas but all require electrical power for their control circuitry, limiting their utility in the event that we lost power. (I'm pretty sure she was just looking around for fun but sometimes it's hard to tell.) She found gasoline-powered portable consumer-grade generators, but all of the permanently-installed generators, capable of powering the entire house in the absence of grid power, were powered by natural gas or propane. I'm not normally especially interested in survival as a hobby but I've read and watched enough near-future apocalypse fiction (and hurricane and earthquake stories) to wonder exactly how much stock I ought to put in the reliability of the grid in the event of a catastrophe. So while I understand the appeal of a generator I couldn't quite reconcile the thought of protecting against one kind of grid loss (electric power) by relying more heavily on another external power source (natural gas). My employer just upgraded its on-site backup diesel generator to power the entire office, and that seems like the right way to implement a backup power system: with a fuel source that can be easily stored, transported, and purchased. (My nearest retail gas station is close enough to my house that given a wagon and a proper container I could be there and back in fifteen minutes, assuming the gas station could actually pump the gas out of the ground and I had financial instruments the on-site staff would accept.)

My idle speculation about the reliability of the natural gas distribution system turned prescient late in the week. An arctic cold front dropped down over us from Canada, bringing a few inches of snow on Wednesday (I measured about three or four inches in Gunbarrel; the local newspaper reported six in downtown Boulder) followed by sub-zero (Fahrenheit) overnight lows and single-digit daytime highs. All was well until Friday morning, when a regulator valve on a natural gas line failed in Niwot, cutting gas service to 7,286 addresses in Niwot and Gunbarrel. (There was a rumor on the Daily Camera's comment forum that the failure was related to water left over from the flooding earlier this fall.) We didn't notice the loss of service until mid-morning when the furnace stopped heating the house and the pilot went out in the gas fireplace. Xcel, our local utility, scrambled to diagnose and repair the problem and repaired the valve by 14:30 Friday afternoon, but they needed to go house-to-house to restore service, and it wasn't clear how long that would take.

(I believe the problem was that most gas appliances are designed with a pilot light that expects a constant pressure lest it go out, and they generally lack a check valve that would prevent the flow of gas when the pilot light was off. Our newly-installed furnace has an automatically-lighting pilot light, but the water heater and fireplace require constant pressure to maintain the pilots. To restore service into a neighborhood Xcel first had to go house-to-house to turn off the gas at the valve at each house's meter, then turn on the valve serving the entire neighborhood, then go house-to-house to turn on the meter valve and relight the pilots in the house. Xcel didn't trust individuals to relight their own pilots.)

One of the disadvantages of living close to work is that both my home and office are usually affected by the same utility outages, and this was no exception. The temperature dropped slowly in my office as the day wore on, though the ventilation system continued to distribute air throughout the building. I headed home early Friday afternoon so I would be present in case Xcel was able to restore service and worked from home for a couple of hours while Kiesa picked Calvin up from preschool and ran a few errands. I set myself up in the upstairs office with a 1500 Watt electric space heater, which managed to keep the room warm, even as the temperature dropped in the rest of the house.

Kiesa returned with takeout from PF Chang's for supper and two extra space heaters from Walmart in Broomfield; we ate in the office and made preparations for bed. I monitored updates from the Boulder Emergency Management Office, which told me that a Red Cross warming shelter had been set up at an elementary school outside of the outage. I decided that, as long as we had electrical power, we could run our space heaters and stay warm enough under the down duvet comforters, but we packed a bag in case the power went out and we needed to make a hasty retreat in the cold. (Calvin was excited by the prospect of sleeping in the same bed as his two favorite grown-ups.)

Just as I was thinking about going to bed Kiesa got a recorded call from Xcel telling us that they would begin restoring service "in our area" at 23:00 and encouraging us to be present to let their crews in. I taped a note with our phone numbers to the front door and camped out in the living room, under a couple of blankets, to wait for the crews to appear. I gave up at 01:00 Saturday morning and went to bed, with our phones next to the bed, straining to hear any noise from the front door indicating a crew.

I woke up Saturday morning to a chilly house -- 52°F on the main level and 50°F in the basement -- and Kiesa reporting that the cold water faucet in the kitchen didn't work, presumably because the pipe had frozen. We checked the other faucets and discovered that the bathroom faucet in the basement had failed as well but the others were still working. I poked around in the ceiling in the basement to try to determine where the pipes were going and found some frigid air along the edge of the basement, adjacent to where the main level overhung the foundation by a foot or two. I didn't see any obvious breaking or leaking in the pipes, so I set up the space heaters and fans to try to warm up the surrounding air and move the air into the space above the ceiling. This ended up working; within ten minutes the cold-water faucet in the basement bathroom was running, and after another ten minutes the kitchen faucet started working as well. The space heaters and fans proved too much for the electrical system in the basement, though; after thawing the pipes all three circuit breakers serving different parts of the basement (and with various parts of the kitchen) threw, forcing me into the frigid outside reset the breakers after unplugging most of the space heaters.

I continued to monitor the sporadic updates from Xcel during the day while Kiesa kept up with the discussion in our neighborhood's discussion forum. Living in a house without heat was a weird experience; we could keep any particular room from getting too cold with the electric space heaters, and perform a modest amount of cooking with the all-electric appliances in the kitchen, but we had no hot water, making rinsing dishes unpleasant. I eventually pulled up the wash basin we use for camping, mixed hot water from my electric tea kettle with cold water from the stove, and rinsed the dishes accumulating in the kitchen. I ran to the library for a quick errand, then returned by mid-afternoon to see an Xcel truck turn into our neighborhood, followed by a car, and stop on the feeder street in front of our house, trying to figure out where to go. (It's often easy to spot newcomers to our neighborhood; they tend to be confused by the somewhat obscure layout and behave accordingly.) They pulled into our street, parked out of sight, and presently I saw a pair of safety-vested men with Xcel hard hats coming down the street toward our house.

The Xcel guy who came to our house quickly restored the gas service, relight the appropriate pilot lights, and power-cycled the furnace to get it to start. He had come in from Minnesota yesterday, arriving at 01:00 this morning, and relieved the Colorado-based crews this morning. (One of the advantages of being an evil out-of-state corporation is the ability to fly in out-of-state employees to help in a crisis.) We had our heat back on by the middle of the afternoon, thirty hours after first noticing the outage (and twenty-four hours after the regulator was repaired), suffering no permanent damage and only a modest inconvenience.

From reading the local newspaper reports and continuing to monitor Xcel's reports, I learned that the utility finished visiting all of the addresses in the outage area at 01:30 this morning, but missed 250 because no one was present; they continued restoring service today as they made contact with affected customers.

The big problem from my perspective was the communication; the best we got was, basically, "We're doing stuff and things and we'll show up eventually when we're ready." From anecdotal reports from our neighbors, it sounded like Xcel assigned each crew a random list of streets, not tied to any particular geographic area, so I saw trucks driving in and out of the neighborhood at random intervals. If I had better information about what their plan was (and where my spot in the queue was) I could have made better decisions about when to be available and when I could head instead to somewhere warm. Friday night's call seemed especially misleading; it sounded like crews were poised to descend on my house individually rather than restoring service to the entire area. But we survived, and I gained a new appreciation for the state of the energy distribution system.