hacker emblem
Search | Tags | Photos | Flights | Gas Mileage | Log in


Started: 2023-03-25 17:40:56

Submitted: 2023-03-25 23:52:31

Visibility: World-readable

A day-and-a-half without power

Spring began on Monday afternoon with the equinox, but winter wasn't done with the Central California coast.

(I am aware that not everyone lives in the northern hemisphere, and that the March equinox has a different meaning for the southern hemisphere. I wish to advise my readers that this blog represents my own subjective experience as a resident of the northern hemisphere, and is not intended to diminish their own lived experiences as residents of any hemisphere. This disclaimer makes the assumption that all of my potential readers are permanent residents of planet Earth, which I understand to be correct as of the date this is written in 2023, though there are temporary residents of low earth orbit at this time.)

A storm fueled by an atmospheric river rolled over Santa Cruz on Monday evening; then on Tuesday the pressure dropped further than forecasters expected, causing the storm to intensify, strengthening the already-powerful winds. At 10:30 on Tuesday morning, as the wind whipped rain through the trees around me, my power flickered and went out. I abandoned my home office, with the matched set of 27" monitors I could no longer use, and took my laptop to the living room couch, in front of the gas fireplace that still worked without power. My office gets chilly in the winter without a space heater (and stays comfortable in the summer, no matter the outside temperature or how hot the rest of the house gets); without power I headed to the only source of heat in the house.

My home Internet connection kept running on my backup UPS. Two years ago, while we were living on top of the mountain with multi-day "Public Safety Power Shutoffs" and other outages triggered by flaky power infrastructure, I bought a 1000VA UPS that was enough to run my router and antenna for about two hours. (At the top of the mountain I had a point-to-point wireless link with Surfnet, from a base station somewhere down the mountain in the general direction of Santa Cruz; when we moved to Santa Cruz I signed up with local provider Cruzio for a similar point-to-point wireless link, pointing to the base station on my neighbor's house on the other side of my driveway/alley. This is great for signal strength but it turns out to be less great for correlated power outages.) I think my UPS runtime has diminished somewhat in the two years that I've used it, but it's still much better than nothing. This time I turned off my home server soon after the power went out, in hopes of conserving my UPS for the Internet router.

The power came back on an hour later, after the outage showed up on PG&E's outage tracking website but before they gave me any useful information about when they expected the power to be back on. It stayed on long enough for me to prepare lunch; then, as I was eating lunch at 12:55 I got an angry ETWS (Earthquake and Tsunami Warning Service, if I remember correctly from my time on LTE a decade ago) emergency alert on my phone about a severe thunderstorm rolling over Monterey Bay over Santa Cruz; and a moment later the power went off again. Barely fifteen minutes later my UPS went out, taking my Internet connection with it. I got about 80 minutes on the UPS.

Boiling water on the stove
Boiling water on the stove

We got rid of our conventional stove-top teapot a couple of years ago in favor of a countertop electric teakettle (I upgraded to a fancy electric gooseneck teakettle with a fancy digital control in the first weeks of the pandemic so I could make pour-over coffee at home), but without electric power the only way I could heat water to make tea was my lightweight camping teakettle (it weighs 161 grams, so I take it backpacking), boiling water over the gas stove lit by hand.

My laptop battery lasted throughout the afternoon, so I kept working as best I could on the couch, using my phone's Internet connection. This worked ok, but I canceled my afternoon meeting because I wasn't sure how reliable my connection would be. From the living room, next to the fire, my phone's coverage was just ok; I got better coverage sitting at the kitchen table, or upstairs in the family room, but both of those rooms were considerably colder without the fire.

As the day continued the outage map turned into a Christmas tree of brightly-colored outages. (Outages were color-coded by the number of customers affected, ranging from green to red, with the important caveat that PG&E counts each billing address as a single "customer".) The City of Santa Cruz had only a few outages and they were dispatched quickly, but the entire San Lorenzo Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains looked like they were almost entirely cut off. The outages continued on the other side of the mountain; large parts of San Jose and the peninsula were also without power.

The power blipped on twice during the afternoon, for a couple of seconds, giving me false hope, before turning off again and leaving us in darkness.

Rio investigates dripping water
Rio investigates dripping water

Two of our upstairs windows started leaking, apparently because the wind blew water into just the wrong part of the frame, and the frame wasn't quite up to any coherent standard of waterproofing. We tried to catch the water before it could drip down the floor and into the ceiling downstairs, and our cat Rio (who may have just turned two, and is very curious) decided to investigate the container we set out to catch the water.

(We adopted Rio last fall from the local animal shelter, and in the paperwork they guessed her age at about a year-and-a-half. She came to the shelter on September 7, 2022, so they backdated her estimated birthdate to March 7, 2021. By that very precise (and not especially accurate) date, we should have celebrated her birthday earlier this month. I am not sure what one does for a cat's birthday. Perhaps we could put candles in a bowl of special cat food and then she'd try to swipe the lit candles with her paw to figure out what they were.)

Kiesa prepared supper on the stove by LED lantern light, and we ate by candle light, as the evening light shone in the windows from the setting sun, muted by the clouds still raining on Santa Cruz. (One of the advantages of the outage occurring after the spring equinox was that we had more than twelve hours of daylight to work with, and daylight savings time had shifted the extra daylight into the evening. At the precise wrong time of day, though, the setting sun shines in my eyes when I'm sitting at the dining table.)

PG&E helpfully reported that "Our preliminary determination is that your outage was caused by the weather," which seemed obvious, but I guess they felt like they needed to say it.

After supper, Kiesa found and read two adaptations of The Tempest to serve as our evening entertainment. I read The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin by LED lantern-light, then went to bed with the power still out.

The power stayed out Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. (I expected it to blip on at least once during the night, just long enough to wake us up because we'd forgotten to turn off all the lights, but at least it remained consistently off.) I made coffee for breakfast with my hand-crank grinder and French press, and checked the status of the outage on PG&E's tracker. They said that the "storms have caused widespread outages" and that "crews may be reassigned to prioritize emergency calls", which I took to mean I was on my own. I drove to Home Depot in Soquel to buy a generator.

Home Depot had two models of generators in stock. The cheapest was a 4kW Ryobi inverter generator for $1000. This was not cheap by any meaningful standard but I wanted to be able to run my fridge and router and charge my computers. (My power budget for the generator also includes running indoor air purifiers, in the event that we lose power during the summer fire season. Each of our four indoor air purifiers has a nameplate power consumption of 70 W, though I only measured it consuming 50 W when I turned it up to maximum air flow.) Last week when I checked their inventory online they reported 15 units in stock. The day before the storm they reported 10 units. Wednesday morning they reported 8 units; Wednesday at noon after I bought my generator they reported 6 units in stock.

On the way home I stopped by a gas station to fill my small two-gallon gas can. (I think this is the first time I've ever bought gasoline in a portable container, rather than dispensing it directly into my fuel tank.) I bought $9.34 worth of gasoline (in Santa Cruz, gasoline is currently a little under $5/gallon) and continued home to set up the generator.

When I detached the garage door from the opener so I could open it by hand with the power out, I discovered that the spring was not quite powerful enough to hold the door open. I could get the door up without too much trouble, but it would slide down as soon as I let go. I found a pole long enough to wedge it under the garage door, braced on the patterns in the concrete on the driveway, so I could get my car out, and so I could set up the generator in the garage, before moving it into position.

While I read the manual to learn how to operate my new generator I was reminded what this is, in fact, an elaborate machine with its own care and feeding requirements. I poured motor oil into the engine, then added gasoline into the tank, then wheeled the generator out into place on the front steps.

The generator manual told me that I should set it up at least 20 feet away from any house (which made sense, given the risk of toxic fumes generated by burning gasoline), and also told me that I should keep it out of the rain (which also made sense, given that I didn't want to get the electrical and mechanical parts dirty). But doing both of those things together was somewhat more difficult: my entire use-case was providing backup power in a storm, and it was still raining on Wednesday morning, even though the bulk of the storm had moved on. I set up the generator on my front steps, with the power panel facing the house and the exhaust facing away from the house, and set up an awkward lean-to with a spare piece of plywood I had leaning against the garage. (The manual told me I should give it three feet of space in every direction, including vertically, but I didn't have the space available to actually do that.)

Generator running on the front steps
Generator running on the front steps

I pulled the starting cord, and on the second attempt the engine coughed to life, growling like an anxious animal. I started adding loads with the fridge (in part because that was my biggest load, and the manual said I should start with the biggest load), which involved stringing my longest extension cord from the generator on the front steps through the cracked-open front door, down the hallway and into the kitchen. This worked fairly well: the generator accepted the new load (it changed tone while it adjusted to the sudden demand of the fridge coming to life, then went back to its normal growl) and the fridge came to life. I didn't have any indication of how much power the generator was providing, or how close to capacity it was, or how much fuel it was consuming, or how much fuel I had left in the tank.

I ran a second extension cord upstairs to the UPS powering my router and plugged it in to a second port on the generator. My router came to life, bringing my Internet connection with it. I set up my charging station and started collecting my devices, then plugged in my laptop and sat down on the couch to work. I was happy to have enough power that I wasn't worried about my Internet connection and my laptop battery, but I could hear the generator from the second-floor family room, its windows overlooking the generator on the front steps, the only place in the house that had power because I had run an extension cord there. I wondered if my generator was too loud for the quiet suburban neighborhood, and whether I was disturbing my neighbors running the generator in the middle of the day.

I turned the generator off to pick up Julian from school, and by the time I got back home (and ate lunch) and turned the generator back on, my Internet connection was down. My point-to-point wireless base station is on my neighbor's house, and their power was out at the same time mine was. They must have had a backup battery that only lasted 24 hours, which ought to be good enough for many outages, but this storm-driven outage was special.

I reloaded PG&E's outage-tracking website obsessively in the afternoon, looking for the first clue for when I could hope to have my power back. Many of the outages around me estimated that they would be restored by 22:00 on Thursday, but the only progress on my outage was that a crew had been assigned to assess the outage. Finally by the middle of the afternoon I saw that we also had an estimated restoration by 22:00 on Thursday, which at least gave me something to hope for. (I also assumed that PG&E would under-promise and over-deliver, based on prior experience.) My assumption proved correct: the power came back at 17:00.

I waited a few minutes to confirm that the power was going to stay up, then I moved my fridge and UPS back to the wall outlets and shut down the generator. The manual told me I ought to leave it in place to cool down for half an hour before moving it, so I did; then I wheeled it into the garage (though there wasn't actually a place to put it so I put it in the aisle in front of my car, blocking the way to the freezer, until I had a chance to organize the garage and find a new place for the generator). I put away the extension cords and life returned to normal, at least for me in my suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Santa Cruz.

Before dawn on Isbel Drive
Before dawn on Isbel Drive

I hope that I don't need to use my generator on a regular basis, but at least I have one now in case I do. I need to improve my power distribution infrastructure inside the house, probably by getting a good extension cable to plug into the 30 A, RV-style outlet on the generator, then splitting the cord further inside the house. My generator is not really powerful enough to serve the whole house, but I might be able to serve more of the house if I'm aggressive about load-shedding (but standard residential power infrastructure is not designed to make it easy to segregate emergency loads from non-emergency loads: my furnace turns on when it feels like it, always assuming that there's enough power available for it to run its control circuits and blower). At some point in the future I'd like to get solar, and ideally a backup battery; and then maybe I can think about wiring in a transfer switch so I can have the option of a generator as a tertiary backup.