Sunday, July 23, 2017

Your Service Drop and You

Hard to believe 220V power just lays out in the sunshine like this, but it does.

Today was an interesting day.  I went to sweep all the pine needles off the roof, which is a routine chore for our house (otherwise, you will have a garden growing up there).  Still sure owning a home is such a sweet deal?

Anyway, in the 90 degree heat, I am sweeping and something catches my attention.  The wiring on our electrical service drop is bare.  The insulation on the "hot" leads has cracked and peeled off, and more over, the neutral/ground lead has frayed and some of the strands have clearly been touching the hot leads - as evidenced by welding marks.  We had been having problems with lights periodically dimming, particularly in wind storms.  Now I know why - in the wind, the loose strands of the ground/neutral wire are touching the bare hot leads and making sparks.  Some fun, eh?

NOTE:  Do not even get NEAR your power drop.  If you slip and fall on your roof, you could end up touching these wires, and even a tiny crack in the insulation could cause you to be electrocuted.  If you didn't die right away, the fall from the roof would finish you off.   I am not suggesting that you attempt the repairs I have made, and indeed vehemently suggest the opposite - call an electrician.  I am not only an Engineer, but was trained in this kind of wiring at Carrier.  You could easily kill yourself doing this.  I am only discussing this repair to point out that home ownership is basically nothing but a series of repairs.  Which is why you never see your friends at the bar, once they buy a house.

By the way, this goes double for downed power lines.  Just stay away, period.
So I call Georgia Power, figuring I'd leave them a message and someone would come out next week and fix it.   They came out in under an hour.   The fellow glances at the wiring and says, "Well, we're gonna have to cut your power!"  and I replied, "to fix it?" and they said, "no, so you can fix it!"

Seems the power to the drop is their responsibility.  Anything from the splice blocks (those black square things in the photo above) onward is your deal.   I didn't mind them cutting the power in a heatwave, but did they have to seem so happy about it?

Once again, we are reminded that a house is just a machine for living - a complicated machine with a lot of expensive parts that break on a regular basis.   Appliances, maybe 15 years.  Air conditioners and furnaces, maybe 15-20.   Roofs, maybe 15-30 depending on type.   Main sewer connections, water lines, electrical service entrance - 40-50 years before problems develop.   Eventually all of these things have to be replaced or overhauled over time - even foundations.   And foundations get expensive, really fast.

Are you still certain that renting is a bad deal?  Because I'm not.  But I've owned a number of properties and had them for years.   So I've seen a lot of bad go down.  Leaky basements, tree-root clogged sewer lines, broken water mains, outdated electrical panels, and appliances, hot water heaters, and air conditioners, several times over.

A house is just a thing, and no it is not the American dream.

Fortunately, I am an Electrical Engineer.  But more importantly, I was a lab tech, and I used to hook up three-phase chillers with triple-ought copper wires, so the big wires don't scare me too much.   For you?  Hire an electrician.   I am serious about this.   There is no surer way to get killed that dealing with high voltage if you don't know what you are doing.

It is odd, that such a dangerous thing and such an important thing is left out in the open, exposed to the elements (where wind, rain, ozone, and sunlight degrade the insulation).  And also where falling tree limbs can damage it, or squirrels can nibble through it.   Just sitting right there on your roof, waiting to kill you the first time you accidentally put an aluminum step ladder up against it.  Odd, ain't it?

We drive to Lowes, which has 4/0 4/0 2/0 wiring which has four-ought for the power leads and two-ought for the ground/neutral.   This is what Georgia power uses, but for some reason the house is wired with 4/0 4/0 4/0.  So we go to Home Depot.   One advantage Home Depot has is they are staffed better, have a larger selection and are more helpful.  At Lowes, you have to press a button to get help, and then they act dumb.  At Home Depot, the fellow and the lady there were very helpful.

(Amazon offered to drone the wire to me, but then admitted that drone delivery was a fantasy).

We run into a Canadian at Home Depot who says, "Well, that's odd, in Canada, Hydro Quebec would come and fix that for me!"   Good for Canada.   But this isn't helping me, my friend! 

It took less an hour to replace the cable.  The meter box was full of skeletons of dead gecko lizards, who probably tried to rest on the hot and neutral leads at the same time.   What a bug-zapper that was.

I call Georgia Power and believe it or not, they agree to send someone out, on a Sunday, to hook the power back up.   He arrived just as nightfall is upon us, and within 30 minutes, he has crimped the new lines to the main power and we are back in business.   It is a lot easier to like the guy who turns on your power than the guy who turns it off.

Total cost, including some electrical tape I bought for other projects, was $55.11   I was lucky, as most electricians would charge "emergency service" prices, and probably not come out for hours, and we'd be looking at tomorrow before we were hooked back up to the grid.  I suspect it would have cost over $1000 for a service call.

And again, this is what I strongly suggest you do - call an electrician, as you are not me, and would likely kill yourself attempting such a repair.

Of course, the fun is not over.  I still haven't replaced my fire-prone Pacific Electric junction box, and probably should replace the rest of the main power lead when I do that.  Then there are carpets that are wearing out.   The garage needs painting.   After 12 years, probably every room the house needs painting.  Heck, we've already repaired a lot - remember the toilet flange job?

And it is not like we live in an "old" house - well, OK, it is 50 years old.  But it was basically gutted and remodeled 12 years ago.   Which means most of the appliances are about ready to fail in the next 5-10 years.

So what's the point of all this?   Well, if you buy a house and are "house poor" you will end up in trouble, as "unexpected repairs" are to be expected.   Even when you buy a newer home, these problems crop up.   And with a brand-new home, you might be covered with a home warranty from the builder, getting him to come back and fix things can be a nightmare.

Home Warranties are an interesting beast, and often sold to first-time buyers.    If you are stretched thin on your financing, it can be comforting to know that if you have a broken pipe or bad wiring, it will be covered.   And they are remarkably inexpensive.   I've never bought one myself, but Mark used to recommend them to buyers.   If you are not handy and skilled, then maybe such a thing is for you.

But for those of you renting, well, don't fret that you can't "afford" to buy a house or whatever.   I suspect you spend a relaxing Sunday at the park or beach, or just reading a book or going on a picnic.   You probably didn't spend it driving to lumberterias looking for four-ought cable, or standing out in the rain stripping cables and wrestling them into the meter box.  Some fun, being a homeowner!

Even worse would be trying to figure out where to put all the food melting in the freezer or where I was going to sleep tonight with no air conditioning or how to shower tomorrow with no hot water.  And for most people, that would be a real concern as well (and yes, hotel rooms and throwing out food is also expensive).   Fortunately, we have the camper as a back-up plan.

But this experience drove home to me that a house is just a thing, and expensive complex thing with a lot of components that break down over time.   When you buy a house, you are not buying a place to live,  just the repair rights.   The previous owner put in new windows, new doors, and a new A/C unit.  Now its your turn to replace the carpets, upgrade the kitchen, and rewire the fuse box.   Some fun, eh?

Keep that in mind before someone tries to sell you on the "dream" of home ownership.   It can also be a nightmare!