ice storm, fire truck

[I wrote this description of our MLK day 2007 near-miss electrical fire in an email to a friend. The house you see in the background at the start is our neighbor's, not our house. I didn't want to show a full view of the outside of our house for everyone on the internets. Go figure.]

What's new with you? Whatever's going wrong, I bet I got you beat this time.

The fire wasn't really bad at all. I don't know if any flames actually sprung up at all.

I was sitting at the computer at 3 A.M. when the power went out and I heard a crashing sound and felt the impact thru the bottom of my chair. I thought a tree had fallen onto the house or nearby. When I went to the ground floor to look outside, I heard a humming or buzzing from the basement. I scrambled for the flashlight my Uncle Al just gave me for Xmas, and went down to see what was wrong. As soon as I opened the basement door, I heard the sound of falling water, and I thought that a tree had fallen into one of the small basement windows, letting a bunch of rain in. Then from the foot of the stairs, I saw an orange glow over the top of the circuit breaker panel.

I started hollering for Melinda to wake up, got her down the stairs and called 911. The fire truck came pretty quickly and by the time they took a look at it, there was no fire, just a smoking laundry line that was strung over the electric panel. I don't think they did anything to put it out. It was out already. They had little temperature scanners that told them how hot everything was and they said it looked like it was okay. They said to keep an eye on it and call them back if it was smoking later on in the night. They also had me turn off the main circuit breaker and said to leave it off until I got an electrician to look at it.

Piecing everything together after hearing the electrician and seeing the damage done, it looks like a ground wire leading about four feet from the electric panel to a water pipe must have started heating up like an uncurled stovetop heating element. It melted or burned anything resting against it, including wires, small patches under the rafters, and a piece of rope that used to be strung up for hanging laundry to dry.

At the same time, there was water spewing out of a pipe right next to the main water shut-off valve in the floor of the basement. I couldn't figure why a pipe would start leaking at the same time as an electrical snafu, but shutting off the main water supply prevented any more from leaking out.

After they left, I set the alarm clock to wake me up an hour later. The firemen had told me to keep checking that the electric panel didn't start smoking or smoldering. At 8:30 A.M. I called an electrician out. They said it wasn't grounded properly, but the only damage that it had done was to burn a few of the wires leading out of the electric panel. They replaced the damaged wires and described how I needed to get it grounded properly, connecting a wire to a pipe leading into the ground. (I asked if they could do that also but I guess they were trying to save me money, letting me know how I could do it myself. The plumber thought it sounded goofy too that the electricians didn't finish that themselves.)

Then the plumber came out and this was kind of funny. A couple years ago when we replaced a bunch of lead pipes in the bathroom, Frank had noticed that spot dripping a little bit right next to the main shut-off valve. I noticed a small puddle under it a few days after we finished the bathroom, because I was very conscious about any leaks around the house, or any new pipes we had put in that might not have been done right. But within a few weeks or months after that, there was no puddle and no leak under this main shut-off valve. The plumber said that hard water can sometimes seal a small leak. Like the lime and calcium or hard minerals in the water will gradually build up in the leak and block it all the way. So I guess what happened is when we had a power surge on Monday night that charred the wires, it was trying to get to the ground through the pipes, and it shocked the built-up lime or calcium deposits out of the spot where it had been leaking, and this time it came out spraying harder.

So the upshot of all that is that the plumber got there, turned on the main valve to see where it was leaking. Then he tightened one nut. That stopped the leak. It was just one loose nut. He turned on the valve all the way to make sure it wasn't leaking any more, and that was it. Fixed in thirty seconds. He waived the $80 per hour hourly rate and just charged $35 for the trip fee, so I got off pretty cheap compared to how much it could have cost.

So then even though it was all fixed by about noon or 1 pm, I was too ragged and stressed to go to work. I took a personal day and went to sleep for a while. Then the electricity was out in our neighborhood and all over town. The newspaper said something like 19,500 people or homes were without power Monday. By about 6 or 7 pm, we decided it wasn't going to be fun sleeping in 50 or 40 degrees F under a bunch of blankets in the house, so we asked my Mom if we could spend the night at her house.

I thought I got about 7 or 8 hours sleep, in between the dogs occasionally barking, but I had a killer headache Tuesday. Melinda stayed at Ma's all day Tuesday. I picked up Melinda after work and we got home around 11:30 P.M. to find the power was back on.

I think that brings us up to date.

And what's new with you?


  • At 6:22 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing

  • At 4:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I didn't understand the concluding part of your article, could you please explain it more?


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