Thanks for the tips…

Last week, much like this week, has been a bit of a broiler in the mid-Atlantic. As a result, my local electric utility sent out a bulk email with some “helpful” tips for dealing with the heat.

Tip #1: On hot days, use your grill to cook so you’re not adding heat to your house. Yeah, that’s a pass. It’s 95 degrees outside with 80% humidity and you want me to stand over and open flame flipping chicken or burgers instead of standing in the 70 degree kitchen where I can control the temperature to within a degree or two with a flick of my thumb.

Tip #2: Do laundry and run the dishwasher at night. Fun fact, night is when I sleep. I’m not staying up until the small hours to do laundry to save a fractional percentage cost of doing it during normal hours. Doing these chores during the non-peak hours you’ve designated doesn’t actually use less electricity, it just makes using the electricity I need to complete these tasks more inconvenient.

Tip #3: Close your blinds to reduce passive solar heating. Here’s the thing… I’m awake during the day, I like being able to see outside while I’m awake. I know I’m just weird like that. These big ass windows and the view they offer are part of the reason I bought the house in the first place. Otherwise I’d just stay up all night with no view doing laundry in the small hours of the morning like you so helpfully suggested.

All I see when a utility offers “helpful” tips such as these is a company that has opted to develop a network that they’re worried might not be up to meeting peak demand. With so much of my monthly bill being service fees rather than the actual cost of the electricity itself, I have very little sympathy in their desire to offload their problems onto the consumer rather than admitting they failed to design or maintain a sufficiently robust system to meet actual requirements.

The price of power…

Apparently in Texas you can sign up for a “wholesale” electricity plan. Just like a loan with a floating interest rate, it could be a real benefit to the consumer when rates are low. The catch is, the interest rate for loans or the wholesale cost of electricity changes over time. Sometimes it changes both dramatically and quickly.

Signing up for the “wholesale” plan makes eminent sense when gas and oil is flowing and prices are low. All it takes, though, is a single unexpected event to make such a decision catastrophically wrong. It’s the inherent risk of pinning your plans on a floating rate that’s governed entirely on the vagaries of supply and demand in a potentially volatile marketplace.

While I feel badly for the people who woke up this week to a $16,000 bill for electricity, I presume the contract they signed included a pretty large warning that price moved both up and down and often does so with great rapidity. I felt sorry, too, for people who signed up for zero percent mortgages only to realize that when their mortgages rest to the “real” rate they couldn’t afford both the principle and the interest.

In both cases, these are people who willingly bypassed traditional service agreements or mortgages in favor of “exotic” options. The low up-front cost of exotic options, even if no other explicit warning is made, should be a clear indication to the average consumer that they are assuming a greater than normal degree of personal risk. Both are just one step better than walking in to the local casino and putting your month’s mortgage or rent payment on red and hoping for the best.

Though I feel sorry for both groups, I don’t feel any more sense of personal responsibility to bail out electricity consumers who made bad choices than I did for bailing out homeowners who took on unreasonable levels of debt. Expecting to enjoy all the benefits of low prices without encountering the corresponding negative possibilities smacks of immature thinking. Constantly protecting people from the natural consequences of their own actions clearly hasn’t done us any favors, as it seems no one has taken any of the lessons to heart. 

Now because I’m not a complete bastard, I could be convinced that low-interests emergency loans for those needing relief is a reasonable idea, but simply wiping out legitimate debt because it’s politically expedient sends an appalling message. Mine won’t be the popular opinion, of course, since no one wants to be responsible for themselves and politicians don’t win votes in this modern world of ours by expecting anyone to live up to their personal obligations when a billion dollar bailout is available. So, really, those whole post is about nothing more than yelling into the void.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. Days I have to schlep over to the actual office to do things I’ve been successfully doing from my living room for a year are annoying. And not just for the usual reasons surrounding spending a day locked in cubicle hell. A not minor part of the annoyance package on those days is the fact that right out of the gate it means I’m losing 80-90 minutes of quality reading time just to get over there. It just adds insult to injury.

2. Emotional responses. It seems that Ted Cruz flew to Cancun while the power was out in Texas. Sure, the optics aren’t ideal, but if Ted stayed in Texas, do you really think he’d be sitting in the dark just waiting for the lights to come back on? Unless your senator moonlights as a power plant operator, electric lineman, oil well repairman, or LP gas tanker captain, there’s very little role for him beyond making phone calls and prodding the people who run the grid to get their act together, which could be done from Houston, Washington, Cancun, or the International Space Station. Honestly the last thing anyone needs in a disaster situation is one more politician wandering around getting in the way of emergency responders. Having worked a fair amount of my early career in emergency management, I can’t remember a single thing that was improved when the politicians showed up in the room for their photo op. 

3. Prediction. Let me start by saying that I recognize that “the weather” is a ludicrously complicated system. Predicting how it’s going to behave at one particular spot on the globe at any given time involves huge assumptions and massive amounts of computing power. With that said, three weeks ago the experts were calling for 4-6 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Last week the experts called for 4-8 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Today, the experts called for another 4-8 inches of snow. Thus far, the results have been less than an inch of sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I’m not saying the daily weather forecast is absolute hokum, but maybe instead of trying to project exact details, we focus more on whether the storm will produce liquid or frozen precipitation and leave it at that since nailing the details seems awfully problematic.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. One Day Shipping. I have no idea why Amazon even pretends to offer items for “one day shipping” any more. Of the last three items I’ve purchased that touted this speedy service, exactly none of them arrived when “expected.” When I’ve been lucky, the items may have shipped by the expected arrival date… although one of those never arrived at all and had to be reshipped, arriving a full week after I ordered it. At one time, Amazon was practically synonymous with “logistics,” but mostly now I think they just make shit up as they go along.

2. Anti-intellectualism. America has a long history of anti-intellectualism. I could give you someone examples, but since we’re currently living through one of them, I’ll save you the trip down our collective memory lane and hope that you’ll just accept that I’m telling you the truth. Maybe the space program in the 60s was an exception, but I suspect that was more because those with the right stuff were billed as test pilots rather than engineers – though in many cases they were both. I know the historical backstory of why Americans have a long tradition of hating the smart people in the room, but I’ll never quite understand why we can’t get the hell over it. 

3. Peak savings days. Local electric companies are quick to hand out a few pennies savings for those who are willing to swelter a bit as afternoon temperatures hover in the mid-90s. All that really tells me is that increasingly, the local electric grid hasn’t been built out to meet actual demand for its product. Personally, I’d prefer to pay them a few pennies more during off-peak times so they can build a bit of excess capacity rather than sweating all the way through high summer. A little personal comfort feels like something well worth paying for, but maybe that’s just me.

Spiked…

I like to know numbers when it comes to household operations. I track metrics on utilities because I like knowing how and why the bills are what they are. I’ve seen something on my utility statement that’s always kind of bothered me, but that I’d never bothered to investigate in detail.

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You see, every 7-8 days I have a surge in the amount of electricity that I use. For a long time I wrote it off as the increased demand caused by my being home on the weekend. I took a closer look, though, and realized that the spikes in use don’t exactly correspond to the days when I just happen to be home all day. If they did, I should see three columns out of every seven standing out instead of just the periodic one day spike. I thought briefly that the spikes might be tracking the day I work from home – when I tend to have two or three computers fired up, the furnace running, and maybe a load or two of laundry snuck in to the mix. Those are all things that logically I understand consume electricity.

The problem is, that none of the usage spikes corresponded to anything like that. Some hit days when I was here. Some didn’t. Being slightly obsessive, I still wanted to know why.

I wish I could tell you I slipped off the toilet while standing on it to hang a picture and had a vision of the Flux Capacitor, but alas that isn’t the case. The culprit showed himself when I was laying out a couple of chicken breasts for a long cook. It turns out every spike in electrical draw showing on my most recent bill actually corresponds to a day when I had dinner cooking away in the crock pot.

I just assumed that the little fella sat there on the counter and cooked up a nice hot meal without drawing off as much power as I use to tend to every other electrical appliance and device operated in this house on any given day. I feel like this is something I should have known kind of intuitively since by definition the thing is sitting there drawing power for eight or more hours at a time, but honestly I’d never given it much thought.

If I were all green and earthy I might consider altering some of my crock pot recipes for oven-based cooking… but as in most things, there’s a prince to pay in terms of convenience. As it turns out it’s a price I’m happily willing to pay. I’m just glad that I now know I’m paying it… though it might just be time to go out and see if I can upgrade my 15 year old slow cooker to something newer and (maybe) more efficient.

Lights out…

Reports are that the lights are out in Puerto Rico. It’s not that some power is out or that sections of the grid are down. The whole damned island has apparently found itself relocated back to the 19th century. Let that sit with you for a minute. You can’t pilfer electricity from your neighbor. You can’t swing a few miles down the road to a motel that’s left the light on for you. You’re one a rock in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and the only places with power are the ones whose generator housings were hardened and high enough not to get flooded – and those small points of light in the darkness will only last until the fuel on hand runs out.

I’d bet that not one in 10,000 of us have a plan for what we’d do if the lights went out and didn’t come back. One night sitting in the dark was enough to convince me to run out and buy a generator – of course it only runs as long as someone is keeping the backyard fuel supply topped off. Running flat out 24/7 I might get ten or fourteen days out of it… assuming the set doesn’t need any service beyond basic maintenance.

I don’t know how long it takes to restore power to 3.5 million people living on a rock in the middle of the ocean, but I’m guessing it may take more than a week or two. Here on the continent it’s a fairly easy thing to stage thousands of men and trucks just outside the danger area and surge them in on their own wheels when the winds subside. It’s an order of magnitude more complicated when getting that support to the people who need it requires both the people and the equipment to arrive by either air or sea.

Although the coverage of our friends in the Caribbean are much on my mind this evening, the wheels are already turning on what more I can do to stave off the 1870s if the power ever well and truly goes out here at home.

Momentary inconvenience…

As I was sitting at my desk this morning going through the usual early Saturday routine of paying bills and administering the other minutia that goes along with running the household, the power cut out briefly. Looking out the window towards the woods, annoyed, I counted the seconds – fifteen of them before the genny cranked over and sent it’s homemade electricity surging down the wire and taking life from the 19th century to the 21st in a matter of no more than 30 seconds. From time to time I regret purchasing a big ticket item that isn’t strictly a need, but I can tell you true that I’ll always consider the cash sunk into that generator money well spent.

It’s probably a good day when the most annoying part of a power failure is having to turn the coffee maker back on and wait for the cable modem to reset. Momentary inconveniences though they are, I suspect I’ll be spending some time this weekend looking at battery backup options for some of those “key systems.” Because once you’ve eliminated the big inconveniences, the small ones somehow become even more obnoxious.

Lessons on a snowy day…

Yesterday wasn’t the first snowy day I’ve had here on the homestead. Compared to last winter’s big storm, this one hardly rated a blip, except for the part where the last half of the storm turned to ice. It’s pretty to look at, makes for some interesting watching the dogs try to find traction, and cuts down trees and utility poles like nobody’s business. It’s that last bit that served to set the stage for the most important of the day’s lessons.

I’ve always known my AT&T wireless signal at home was spotty at best. Since I don’t make all that often, this fact was largely hidden by my home Wi-Fi picking up the slack for data purposes. It’s a system that works well enough under normal operating conditions. With Comcast having gone MIA due to any number of local lines being down, operating conditions yesterday were less than ideal. By “less than,” I mean that my fancy new iPhone was utterly and completely useless as a means of communicating for almost the entire duration of the cable outage.

Also learned yesterday was the fact that every penny I spent installing and maintaining my generator was money well spent. Twenty seconds after the lines came down, it roared to life and kept the furnace blower blowing, the well and sump pumps pumping, the dryer drying, and the lights lit. I cooked a normal dinner and settled in to watch The Hunt for Red October and then Master and Commander… while occasionally seeing candles dot the windows of the house across the street. It kept right on chugging through 18 hours without a moment’s complaint. With that I am well satisfied.

Aside from a few other minor details, yesterday’s experience was one up and one down. Over the next few weeks, I know I need to beef up my communications capability. That’s good info to have before I find myself in a position of really needing it. Once the ice melts off and I get a decent day, I also owe the generator an oil change and a pat on the proverbial head.

Power and predictability…

Last night I once again woke up to the the neighborhood’s generators sputtering to life and then keeping their homes heated and lit for the duration of the five hour outage. By contrast my generator, perfectly capable of performing similar, if more limited, activities stayed warm and dry in the garage – mostly because 12AM in the rain is a really shitty time to drag it outside, tarp off a spot that will be dry enough to keep the direct weather off the running equipment, run extension cords, fuel the contraption, and then get it up and running.

So instead of noting the outage and waiting 20 seconds for backup power to bring itself online, I woke up once an hour from midnight to 2AM to serve as a one man bucket brigade. At 2:25 every smoke detector battery in the house gave up in unison. I chirping smoke detector under normal circumstances is unpleasant in the middle of the night. Five of them giving off their low battery call in a house that has no other items making noise is waterboarding for the ears. At that point it was off to the garage to drag in a ladder, replace the dying batteries, and restore peace and tranquility to the small hours of the morning. By that time it’s about 3:15, another bucket comes up from the basement and I’m staring at 3:30. Forty five minutes of dozing on the couch later and lights start to flicker. Somewhere ’round about 4:30 they come on to stay (so far).

It’s in that 30 minutes between “first light” and the scheduled alarm to wake me up for work that I decided to avail myself of the proffered allowance to take unscheduled leave due to the expectation of a snow storm that didn’t materialize locally. It’s safe to say I was in no fit humor to be around people – or perhaps that should be that my humor was even less fit than usual.

I’m forced to the undeniable, if obvious, conclusion that I am a creature of the 21st century. I expect the predictability of power coming more or less uninterrupted from the wall. Unlike that far off cabin I dream of in retirement, this place just isn’t built to operate in the absence of electricity.

The 20kW solution to that problem is coming sooner rather than later. Still, I find myself growing more impatient to arrive at the day when in a pinch I can be my own prime power provider and eliminate one more of life’s small annoyances.

Taking advantage of the captive audience…

Most of the people who read this blog are a captive audience tonight. I feel like I should use the opportunity to say something insightful or at least drive up the weekend’s hit count.

This is the first snow since I took possession of the new homestead here and most of my stray thoughts tonight are given over to how the place will handle the weather, how robust the neighborhood electric grid will be once the wind cranks up, why they built this place without a secondary heat source, and generally coming up with ways to entertain myself for the next couple of days. Somehow I think that regardless of circumstances I’ll manage to find something to while away the hours.

If you don’t hear from me in a few days you’ll know the lights went off and took my painfully weak cell signal with them. So far as I can tell that’s really the only down side of living back here off the beaten path… and it’s a problem I’m doing my best to remedy in the coming weeks but that will come too late for this particular party.

Stay warm. Enjoy a day or two of enforced seclusion however you choose to spend them. I’ll see you once we get started with the big melt. Or maybe before, depending on how quickly boredom sets in and other circumstances.