It Heats Up When The Power Goes Off

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A thunderstorm rumbled through on a recent late Sunday afternoon, bringing much-needed rain to our parched area. It also knocked out the electricity with 20 minutes left in the last episode of “Broadchurch” on BBC-America. This brought an anguished cry from my Beautiful Mystery Companion who was trying to catch up on missed shows. We lose power inordinately in this cul-de-sac, even under a cloudless sky, though rarely for long. I have AEP’s outage number in my cell phone contacts and quickly went through the routine of reporting it to an automated voice.

We are frugal folks with a large house, so we keep the thermostat set at 78 degrees downstairs and 80 degrees upstairs during the day. With ceiling fans whirring when a room is occupied, that keeps it tolerable if you dress accordingly in shorts and T-shirt.

But that is only when the electricity is working. When the power goes off in the summer, this house becomes a brick-veneer oven. The large fixed-pane windows can’t be opened to pull in the breeze from the storm. We open all the doors to invite in the rain and mosquitoes, as well as a modest breeze. We hunker in the den and sweat. And wait. Rosie and Sam can’t stand the thunder and whimper at our feet. They don’t understand why the doors are open, since this could allow inside whatever is making that racket outside.

Daughter Abbie looks up from her iPhone and informs us all her friends have power. My BMC is trying to answer work emails on hers. I try for a time to download links on my iPhone to good sites for magazine design for my upcoming class, but it is taking too long. I give up and read the Sunday New York Times by the fading window light.

As darkness falls, Abbie goes out to one of our vehicles to recharge her phone and listen to the radio. Eventually we decide to reconnoiter the neighborhood and see if we can spot an AEP truck working on the lines. At least the Highlander has air conditioning, which we crank up full blast for a time as we take note of which streets are completely dark and which have lights. We note with envy that a neighbor has a generator capable of powering his home’s central AC. We roll down the windows to hear it running. My BMC asks how much it would cost to install a similar system. More than it would cost to stay in the Holiday Inn Express for a couple months, I reply.

As we drive through our neighborhood, it appears we are being followed. Headlights appear in the rear-view mirror. Then we figure out several of our neighbors are also roaming around for the same reason we are, soaking up their vehicle’s AC, wasting gasoline and hoping to spot an AEP truck fixing whatever caused the power outage. We are a pitiful lot, unable to sit home long in the dark, stripped of our television, computers and yes, air conditioning. We return home, and I break out the flashlights, one for each of us. Reading by flashlight reminds me of hiding under the covers with a penlight as a kid after lights out, trying to finish the latest Hardy Boys novel.

The power has now been off four hours. The small sliding window in my study offers a scant breeze. I decide to call AEP again. This time a human answers. I politely ask if she has any idea when power might be restored. She clicks a few keys and says she can’t predict when that might happen. Just then a house alarm goes off down the street, my compute restarts, the air-conditioning kicks on, and the lights blaze alive. The electricity has returned! “You did it,” I tell the AEP rep, who demurs that she can’t take the credit. “Oh, but you should, “ I say. “Goodness knows you folks get plenty of the blame.” She allowed as how that certainly was true.

It isn’t just storms that knock out the power. The electrical grid is frighteningly fragile, often taken down by squirrels. I read a piece the day after the outage in The Times by a fellow who spent the summer documenting power outages caused by those toothy rodents, who regard our tree-filled backyard as a paradise. (At least our service line is underground.) He found reports of 50 power outages in 24 states caused by squirrels, knocking out an airport, hospital, museum and, by my count, about 50,000 customers. By squirrels committing hari-kari!

I admit we have grown soft, overly dependent on air-conditioning and the other creature comforts. Someday I hope to build a house that is designed to rely less on artificial cooling and more on natural air flow, shade and terrain.

Of course, it probably won’t be in East Texas; when it is 100 degrees and humid there isn’t much to do but crank up the AC — and pray the power doesn’t go off.

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