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My Bumbling Response After The Storm

The power went out and the discoveries commenced.

The light on the garage wall is not on the “garage” circuit.

It is on the laundry room/mud room circuit, which had been the back porch a half-century ago.

Two electrical outlets are side-by-side in that garage. One is on the “garage” circuit. The other is on a circuit marked “front

Electricity can kill people and burn down buildings, so those were cringe-inducing discoveries last week after a Paul Bunyan windstorm felled trees across power lines. That mish-mash kept Penelec and United Electric busy for days.

Our own 48 hours without United-supplied current was unremarkable. But I managed to lose the instruction manual to our 7,800-watt gasoline powered generator.

Inside that manual was a “cheat sheet” for how to feed various wattages of current through our double-throw switch to the innards of our house and barn.

We installed the conversion setup ten years ago but had not fully used it since then. My memory is … old.

The first farce was a 10-minute attempt to hook the connector cord into the 220 volt receptacle outside the house – before it occurred to me that the end that has the metal prongs (the male end) will not connect to the receptacle because it too has male-end prongs.

Aha! Reverse the cord! We were connected.

The generator started right up, thanks to a shorter loss of power in September. For five years, that generator had collected dust in our garage, untested.

During that September power loss, I did the sensible thing. I went to bed. When I woke up, the power had been restored.

But I heeded the wake-up call and dusted off the generator. I replaced its gasoline, oil, battery and spark plug. Only then did I start it up. It ran well.

Again last week, the generator worked.

But where was that chart? It says that the refrigerator requires a zillion watts whereas a hot water heater requires a gallon of watts and a light bulb requires gigabytes. Or something like that. I am a dweeb at measurements.

The chart was with the instruction manual for the generator. Both were lost.

So I guessed. I staggered the power feed to the circuits. A half-hour per refrigerator and freezer, two hours for the water heater, a shutdown of everything else while the electric kitchen range cooked for us. Most important was allowing the jet pump to bring up enough well water to fill pitchers, buckets and tubs.

We heat with propane through ventless wall heaters, plus electrical baseboard. The old-school propane heaters, a less smelly heir to the kerosene stoves originally in kitchen and parlor, kept us warm enough. A propane-powered camping stove allowed tea and coffee to be reheated. So overall, we coped nicely enough.

But there were glitches, mostly amusing.

The core four rooms of our small farmhouse were built in the 1850s. The kitchen was added in the 1890s. Electricity did not arrive until the 1930s and 1940s.

So the knob-and-tube black electrical wires were placed … wherever. Upgraded shielded wire or conduit followed those pathways, using the principle of “we have enough wire to reach to here; let’s tap in and write it down later.”

I never quite knew which lights would stay on when switches were flipped. Keeping track of that, plus running from the basement to the kitchen to upstairs to the toilet-flushing buckets kept me sweating and puffing all day. I was surprised when it came time to go to bed at about 10 p.m.

I shut off the generator. In full darkness, I strained to see the horizon from a bedroom window.

There, near a mile away, were flickering yellow blinking lights and steady white beams of headlights, flashlights and portable-generator light stands.

Men and women from Penelec, United Electric, Davy Tree Service and probably other outfits were still out there, fighting wind, hacking tangled power lines free of twisted evergreen branches, replacing poles and wires where needed.

My putzing around only left me short of breath and a wee bit sweaty. Those folks’ use of chain saws, hot stick insulated poles for working on live lines, knives and brute strength from gloved hands and aching, weary arms was restoring the pathway we all longed for – while we stayed inside our warm, dry homes. I curled up in bed, keenly grateful.

Before dawn, my wife sleepily alerted me. “The security light is on,” she said. “We have power.”

I rolled over and slept, leaving until morning the disconnecting from the generator and reconnecting to the utility company’s power. I flicked the final switches – without taking the results for granted.

Later Tuesday, I went to town to replenish gasoline supplies. Power crews were still at work in spots along the road.

I waved. I smiled. Through the windshield, I said what I hoped they heard.

“Thank you.”

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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.

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