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Making Coffee With A Hammer -or- The Quest For Power

(This post, with just a bit more embellishment, is now available as a podcast.)

Thursday night an ice storm hit the Northeast. Power flicked off and on a bit, but didn’t go off, and we went to bed.

Friday morning, about 5:30, we were awakened by a squeal from the cellar. All the power was off, and I recognized it as the alarm on the sump pump in the cellar, which is triggered by rising water levels. I grabbed a flashlight, went down cellar, waded through ankle deep water and turned off the battery powered alarm.

I came back up and called NYSIG, our power company, on my cell phone. “Press 1 to report a life threatening emergency, press 2 for all other questions.” I just wanted to know when the power was coming back on, so I pressed 2. “Please enter your ten digit account number.” I wasn’t about to dig through my bills with a flashlight, so I redialed and pressed 1.

A man answered and said that 100,000 people were without power, (we later learned it was about 240,000), lines were down all over the place and they had no estimate when the power would be back on. We waited an hour or so until my daughters got up, made a few phone calls, and determined that the places they worked were also powerless. Rather than stay in an increasingly colder house we piled into the car and headed north, to Saratoga, where they still had power. We went out for lunch, hung around the nice warm mall, and went to a movie.

We got out of the movies around six, and called the house. If the power was back on Vonnage would kick over to voice mail, if not it would forward the call to my cell phone. My cell phone rang.

We called NYSIG again, and the same guy answered the phone. There was still no estimate of when the power would be restored.

So we went out to supper and spent more than we should have, took as much time as we could at the restaurant, then headed home.

The house was down to 50 degrees. We bundled up and went to bed.

There was still no power when we woke up. The inside temperature was now 40. I called NYSIG, and was told they expected the power would be restored by Wednesday. Wednesday!

I needed coffee. I always make coffee with a French press, grinding the beans just before I brew it, but the grinder didn’t work without power and all I had was whole beans. I stepped on the back porch and put a pot of water on the grill, then went back inside, put a handful of beans in a plastic bag, and pulverized them with a meat hammer. Hot coffee tastes especially good in a freezing cold house.

I’d wanted to get a generator for a while, and now I needed one. Some of the water had drained out of the cellar on its own, but without power there was a risk that it could fill up at any time, ruining the heater and the gas water heater I’d had installed just a few months before. With nightly temperatures in the teens, burst water pipes were almost guaranteed. And a freezer full of food would be ruined. I needed a generator now.

I called every hardware store in the area. Nobody had any. I finally found one at a BJs in Utica, about 110 miles away. I told them to save me one.

I wasn’t looking forward to driving back down the Thruway with a generator half sticking out of my trunk, held in by bungee cords, but Stephen, a neighbor who my kids still babysit for said he wanted one too, and offered to drive us both there in his pickup truck if my kids would watch his kids. He has a fireplace, so it was an easy sell. I had, by then, contacted an electrician who said he could hook it up to the house wiring when we got back, and told us that we also needed to get a gen tran pack to hook it up to our existing breaker box.

We left around noon. The trip to Utica was uneventful, and we got two generators at BJs for six hundred bucks each. While we were waiting at the service desk to ring them up the woman in front of us was having trouble renewing her membership. I told Stephen how I had made coffee that morning, and she finished her transaction just as I said “That worked out pretty well.” The woman, thinking I was talking about her, turned around and gave me a funny look. “I wasn’t talking about you,” I explained, “I was just telling him how I made coffee with a hammer.” She gave me a funnier look.

BJs didn’t have gen tran packs or even know what they were, so we went to a nearby Lowes. They were sold out. Next stop, Home Depot. There I met someone who didn’t have any either, but told me he had been a master electrician for thirty years and wanted to have a conversation about how NYSIG were a bunch of assholes and shitheads and they sucked. Language doesn’t offend me, but I was surprised to hear that from a clerk on a sales floor. I was also awfully impressed that a master electrician was working for probably ten bucks an hour at a Home Depot.

Stephen made some calls from the truck and we located the Gen-Tran packs at a Home Depot in Amsterdam, which was on the way home and about 45 minutes from our neighborhood.

We hit the Thruway and headed home. About a half hour later the truck started bucking. Hard. (I’d like to tell you the truck was a Bronco, because that would be funnier, but it wasn’t.) We drove on the shoulder at 25 MPH for about a mile and it smoothed out again. Ten minutes later it started again. We drove on the shoulder, slowly, for five miles before we came to a rest stop. We were hoping it was just a case of bad gas or clogged fuel injectors. A full tank of gas, along with dry gas and some STP additive, and we hit the road again. It ran smoothly. For about a mile. Then the bucking started again. About ten minutes later it smoothed out, and stayed fairly smooth for the rest of the trip. We breathed a sigh of relief.

We pulled into the Amsterdam Home Depot. Several people were walking out pushing flatbed hand trucks…with generators on them. They had received a shipment while we were in transit.

We got our Gen-Tran packs ($300 each), some five gallon gas cans, and headed home. About twenty minutes from home we pulled into a gas station and filled the cans. We were delighted. We had been on the road for about six hours, but we had our generators, the electronics, gasoline and an electrician waiting to install everything.

As we pulled out of the gas station both our cell phones rang. Our kids were calling us to let us know the power just came back on.

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8 Comment(s)

  1. coal stove: check
    generator: check
    25 gallons of gas: check
    power: check

    We never lost power except for about 20 minutes at 3am. That never happens. We got snow instead of ice.

    You could always do what we do when the power goes out — fill up the coolers with all the food and stick it outside.

    Johnny Virgil | Dec 14, 2008 | Reply

  2. Life has a sick sense of humor, doesn’t it?

    I have a friend up that way who told of similar conditions via Twitter. He also expressed a desire to get a generator.

    I’m glad our power here is mostly below ground so we aren’t as prone to outages. Especially since I don’t have a fireplace.

    I’m glad to hear your power is back up and you’re ready if it happens again.

    Bryan | Dec 15, 2008 | Reply

  3. Dave, throughout that whole rambling story I took it on faith that you were coming to some sort of point.

    Even when it was getting close to the end and I wasn’t able to see where you were going with this, I still figured that you would soon reveal some sort of clever moral to the story that had escaped me.

    Oh how I’ve now been disillusioned!

    Parrot | Dec 16, 2008 | Reply

  4. It’s great living in a country which receives almost no snow and where Christmas and New Year’s celebrations are held outside in the blistering heat. We also have a skills shortage here so a master electrician would be earning truckloads of cash rather than working for minimum wage at a hardware store. But maybe the benefits of living in Australia are tempered by the fact that we don’t get TV programs until the following season has already been broadcast in the US.

    George Jefferies | Dec 17, 2008 | Reply

  5. Sorry to disappoint you, Parrot. No real moral, I just thought it was a funny story.

    Stephen and I were laughing when we got those calls.

    The electrician, without the pressure of having to do it on the weekend, was able to get a few more things and do it right this morning.

    Now I almost want the power to go out so I can reap the rewards of the investment.

    Dave Hitt | Dec 17, 2008 | Reply

  6. Not disappointed, it just took me by surprise when the thing ended without any point having been made.

    That’s so unlike you!

    Good story though ;)

    Parrot | Dec 18, 2008 | Reply

  7. Dave,
    You should replace the battery powered sump alarm with a battery powered back up pump. That will protect your basement. Also, a battery powered coffee grinder would come in handy too. The easiest way to prevent burst pipes is the trickle method. Just turn on a faucet to a trickle and let it run so the water won’t freeze. Of course if your basement temp stays above freezing you shouldn’t have any trouble. Johnny above is right about the food. In tech school I didn’t have my own refrigerator so I hung a basket with my food out the window to keep it from spoiling. My roommate said he had never seen anyone do that before. The coolers, or even the fridge will actually keep the food from freezing if the temp gets too low.

    Brian | Dec 18, 2008 | Reply

  8. The problem with a UPS for the sump is the expense. They have to be very heavy duty. One day when the power died I took a charged UPS from my computer and plugged it into the sump. The pump groaned for about ten seconds, and then the UPS shut down, completely drained.

    Now that I have the generator I’m not too worried about it. Half the circuts in the house, including the heater, fridge, sump and most important, coffee equipment and Tivo, are on the backup generator.

    Wonder if I’ll get to use it this year?

    Hittman | Dec 18, 2008 | Reply

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