Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Electrical haywire

Such a weird day yesterday. We had very high winds almost all day, as a cold front swept over us. Midway through the morning, the power began flickering in the house. No problem, that happens sometimes, and I figured it would be over in an hour or so. No way. The power flickered on and off ALL DAY, occasionally staying on for as long as 10 minutes at a time, and then switching off for a few moments, just long enough to set all the clocks in the house back to 0:00. The lights were flashing, I couldn't even turn on the TV in the bedroom for the news because it would keep zooming on and off, and the computer would barely come online before it would shut down again - finally I flipped off the surge protectors and figured we'd wait it out.

But here's where it gets strange. I soon realized that the electricity was only unstable in about 2/3 of the house. In the front hall, the basement, the garage and the TV room at the back of the house, there was no fluctuation at all! I moved the microwave in there so we could heat up food for lunch, then ran an extension cord from the kitchen to keep the fridge turned on - no problem at all with the electricity in that one room. I could turn on the TV in there and the kids could watch videos, but upstairs in the bedrooms, it was hopeless.

Finally, at about 3:30 PM, power came on elsewhere in the house, and after an hour or so, I realized that the problem had somehow resolved itself. I have no idea what happened. The circuit breakers in the garage didn't flip off throughout any of this bizarre episode. I can only guess that the house was wired in a strange way, with different gauges in the two different parts of the house, and one gauge was sensitive to electricity fluctuations in a way the other one wasn't. There were no reported power outages in Ottawa, but there were plenty elsewhere in the province. Could the problems drawing on the power grid elsewhere have been strong enough to cause electrical surges in OUR house but nowhere else?

UPDATE: It happened again! On Saturday. Another windy day, another episode of flickering lights. This time I called Ottawa Hydro, and they sent a crew out to look at the power lines. They agreed that the tree branches were causing the problem, so they got out the cherry-picker and the chainsaw, and lopped off a good number of branches, which are now piled next to our driveway. Dean will trim them and saw them into fireplace-size logs in the spring. However, I also called an electrician to come to the house this week and check the wiring. I needed some small jobs done anyway - installing new light fixtures, fixing a broken wall switch - so I figured it was a good opportunity to have the wiring checked out at the same time.


Blogger Colin said...

Sounds like a problem you should give a call to the hydro utilities about. I'm going to take a guess and say that you have overhead power lines from your house to a power pole in the alley? The high winds rocking the pole around may have caused the transformer (or powerlines) to malfunction.

In the simplest terms, there are two live wires (phase A and B) running from the transformer to your panel. The devices in your house should be evenly balanced between these two phases. Only 240V devices (dryer, oven) use both at the same time.

So if you were to map out the circuits that were fluctuating (assuming your panel is properly labelled), they would numbered either be 1,2,5,6,9,10...(phase A) or 3,4,7,8,11,12... (phase B).

This isn't anything a handyman or local electrician could fix you'll have to call the utilities about it.

12:37 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Thanks for the advice - I think I'll take it. The electricity does come from wires attached to wooden poles on the street in front, and there are a number of trees growing through them as well (city trees, I hasten to add, not ours). The pole might have been moving, or the trees might have been pushing against it. In any case, it's something they should know about, and maybe they might decide to take down some of those trees - I've always thought there were too many, but the city treats them as if they were made of gold, and never cuts one down unless they absolutely have to. It's a holiday today, so I'll give them a call tomorrow; meanwhile, I can spend the day mapping out the circuits in the house.

10:04 am  
Blogger Aggie said...


I mildly diagree with Colin. I suspect you're experiencing a heat-related intermittent connection somewhere in the internal wiring of the house.

I suspect cold temps caused a wire in a connection to contract. A bit of oxidation or lack of sufficient pressure could cause your symptoms. When the day warmed up, about 3pm, the wire slightly expanded to restore pressure or break through oxidation.

My concern if this is an in-the-house problem, is that this kind of poor connection can heat up and cause a fire.

12:44 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Hmm. Well, if that is the case, how would one go about finding where the problem is in the house? Can an electrician test the wires without ripping out the walls and ceilings and exposing them? It was odd, too, that the problem affected many circuits over the entire house, rather than just one.

4:00 pm  
Blogger Aggie said...

I think obtaining a qualified electrician would be the best route for ya'll.

Electricity has a bad happen of sneaking up behind you and bitin' ya' in the butt, even if you do acually happen to know what you're doing. :>)

Aggie, Class of '70

Blog:  An Anglican Firearms "Enthusiast"

10:56 am  
Blogger Allen Lewis said...

Electricity does strange things sometimes, especially with high-tension transmission. The tree limbs rubbing on the wires could have been causing some of the problem.

But that is a strange thing to have happen.

11:33 am  
Anonymous Christopher Johnson said...

Ah, branches. A freak storm blew through here one evening in 2006. Most impressive storm I've ever seen The fact that the trees next to power lines hadn't been trimmed in a very long time was part of what knocked out power for about a week for something like a million and a half people in the area. The power company here is still trimming branches here and there.

Several months after that, we had a bad ice storm that shut the area down again(didn't affect me either time). Initially, the ice took a lot of lines with it and weighed down trees and branches. Then the ice would melt a little, the trees or branches would snap back and take the lines out again.

Gosh, global warming is fun. :-)

11:11 pm  
Blogger Aggie said...

Dr Mabuse, do you have the problem fixed? Safely, we pray.

Aggie, Class of '70

Blog:  An Anglican Firearms "Enthusiast"

9:23 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Well, the flickering problem has stopped, at least. I think it was the branches that caused that. But all this electrical stuff has begun to prey on my mind, so I'm going to get the whole house surveyed by a company that specializes in wiring safety. Too much else in the house was jerry-rigged during construction (you wouldn't believe the sort of plumbing connections they used under the kitchen sink!) and I don't trust the builders not to have done "something funny" as Florence King put it, when they installed the wiring.

This outfit can check the walls with sensors to see if there's excessive heat being put out, which would indicate faulty wiring. I really don't want to find out the hard way that there was a problem.

9:37 am  

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