Lightning: An Equal Opportunity Destroyer in Maine
You’ll have to forgive just a little bit of minor tech-talk for this story.
A loud crack at around 5 p.m. Sunday indicated that the lightning must have struck something close. The lights went out and Paul, who works for our island’s power company, immediately got the two alarms. A “Sensophone” device in the power station is programmed to dial his phone number and to call his pager if an engine drops off the line when it isn’t supposed to, for whatever reason. The pager and the old-fashioned, wired-in telephone rang, to alert the station operator that something was wrong, but he didn’t really need that notification. He was standing in the dark.
Well, not really dark; it was still daylight out, but you get the idea. The power went out.
Matinicus is not served by any cable from the mainland. We have our own small municipal power company, which has two part-time employees, the billing clerk and Paul, who does everything except paperwork — lineman, meter-reader, parts department, tank farm flunky, trouble man on call.
The telephone call alarm from the Sensophone unit allows the recipient of the call to hear the background noise, and Paul could hear engine noise in the station, so he knew that the whole system wasn’t out. Our power is generated by three relatively small diesels, which are controlled by an early-1980’s-era electronic mechanism (“switch gear”) which starts and stops them as needed for efficiency (to oversimplify things rather enormously). The idea is that we generate what we need, but don’t waste too much fuel at times when the demand for electricity is down, and we don’t need a human being sitting in the station twenty-four hours a day.
As he drove the roughly three-quarters of a mile toward the harbor where the powerhouse sits, Paul looked up at the overhead power lines. The line fuse for the south end at the four corners was open. Beyond that, several homes had obvious lights on, so he knew that this outage did not affect the whole community.
At the station, he discovered that the #1 engine, a Detroit Diesel 3-71, had “dumped;” the generator had been overloaded and forced off-line (the equipment protects the engines). The indicator light for “overcurrent” was lit up. Engine #2, a larger Detroit 4-71, had not been forced off, and as the island load this time of year requires more than one generator, the #3 engine was automatically called up. When Paul got to the station, #2 and #3 were running. He re-set the breaker for engine #1 and tried it; it was fine. The automatic switch gear had done its job.
The next step was to find out if anywhere else besides the south end of the island was out. He called telephone numbers on different parts of the island; somebody at Griffin’s picked up the phone, Proctor and Libby had machines on. This indicated that the north end road, the west side, and harbor point all had power, at least on the main lines.
With the worst of the hard rain over, he got the bucket truck out of the Quonset hut truck garage and started up the island to replace the fuse for the south end. John, who lives on that corner and assists with the power company, came out to help. When Paul, up in the bucket, snapped the new fuse in place, he saw arcing on the hot line clamp that carried power to the fuse. He came down out of the bucket, drove the truck down to where he could reach the clamp, went up, tightened it, and tried again. Still arcing. He did this a couple of times until he was satisfied it would be OK, and the south end stayed on.
Paul then went home to check the power there, and found it back on. He called Megan, farther south, and she was on as well. He went to check Robert’s line fuse, which was fine (he lives at the end of a long side road,) but on the way was stopped by Ron Watkinson, who reported that his place was out. The fuse in to Watkinson’s road was blown; Paul replaced the link, closed it, and it stayed, meaning there wasn’t a continuing short circuit.
Watkinson still didn’t have telephone service, though. He only had cordless phones in his place, and Paul told him they might be fried. Ron wanted a loaner phone from the phone company; Paul went over to the TDS Telecom “CO,” the Central Office, not an office at all but the shack at the base of the island’s microwave telephone tower. We always just called this little building the “dial house.” He found a spare phone for Watkinson, and while at the CO, he saw that a whole bunch of red lights were on and alarms were sounding, indicating something wrong with the T-1 line at the school (that’s for the computers). He called Lana, our island fellow, who is the unofficial Tech Help Desk for the schoolroom, the teacher having left for the summer already. She would go and find out whether the island’s one-room school had Internet. It did not.
While Paul was on the phone to his boss at TDS Telecom about this, he asked about the phone he lent to Watkinson. “The customer wants me to sell him this phone.”
“We don’t sell telephones anymore.”
“I know, but he still wants me to sell him this phone.”
“You aren’t supposed to sell him a phone.”
By then, it was about 8 p.m. Paul checked the powerhouse one more time, and headed home. At about 8:15 p.m., Greg next door knocked on the door; he was holding a wireless router, hot to the touch and smelling distinctly cooked. Paul tried our own Internet — nothing. He called Natalie up the road, who tried hers. Nothing. Midcoast Internet Solutions’ customers were out. He called George Tarkleson, who gets Internet directly from Midcoast on the mainland, as he lives on the west side of the island and doesn’t need to get his through the main tower (which happens to stand right beside our house). George had Internet, which proved that Midcoast itself was OK, and that the problem was local. Paul called Midcoast and put in a “trouble ticket” (reported the problem) for the next morning.
The next morning, Paul spoke to TDS Telecom, and generated a trouble ticket through them for the T-1 line at the school. Matinicus has Internet both through Midcoast and the phone company.
He called Midcoast about the outage here, and was told to “re-cycle” everything, which he had already done. He ended up changing out a couple of the electronic components on the tower, but some of the equipment up there was fine— there was no evidence that the lightning had struck the tower itself. In the middle of making these repairs, Judy called. Paul interrupted her before she could finish her first sentence: “You don’t have Internet.”
“We’re working on it.”
Soon, she and the other customers were back on, but our own computer line still didn’t work.
Paul went next to the TDS Telecom “dial house” where all the electronics are housed, and replaced the T-1 HD board. He packed up the faulty circuit board to be sent to the mainland for repair; he’d hand it to one of the air service pilots later in the day, and somebody from TDS would come to the airport in Owls Head to pick it up.
Watkinson’s “borrowed” telephone only worked a little while and then seemed to die again. Paul was called back there and did some testing. He found the problem to be not in the phone itself, but with the two satellite TV boxes, which were shorted out. This “busies out” the phone line. “Don’t use your satellite box to call and order movies,” Paul told the customer. “Call them directly on the phone if you want a pay-per-view movie. The satellite box is cooked.”
It turned out his old cordless phones were OK, once the satellite was disconnected, so Paul didn’t have to figure out how to sell him the replacement phone, or not sell it to him, or whatever.
I was on the mainland that morning. Paul called my cell phone and told me to go and buy a router to replace a piece of equipment that was fried in our own system. I did so, and as I got off the plane on Matinicus later that day, Paul handed the pilot the box containing the faulty T-1 circuit board. I climbed into Paul’s telephone company truck, over a pile of tools and equipment, and we started toward home. About halfway home, Dennis, who lives across the road from us, stopped us in his truck. “Did we have a big thunderstorm while I was off? Any chance we had a lightning strike?”
“I’m sure of it,” said Paul. “The whole south end was out, lots of people have damaged equipment — I’m just not sure what it hit.”
“My TV and a whole bunch of lights are wrecked, and the ceramic chandelier in my dining room was lying in the middle of the floor when I got home.”
The next day, Dennis’s son stopped by. “There are roof shingles all over the lawn. I think there’s a hole in our roof. I’m pretty sure I know where it hit.”
So…why would you care about any of this? Notice here how nobody calls the Big Utility Company and gets a strange voice in a distant office; they knock on the door of the local technician, stop him in the road, follow him to the power station, shout up to him in the bucket truck. It’s the same guy doing the power, the phones, and the Internet. This lightning strike was, in Paul’s words, “an equal opportunity destroyer.” We were all lucky it wasn’t worse.
Eva Murray wants some credit for presumably being the only female on the coast of Maine who would allow the guy-wires for a 60’ tower to cross right in front of her picture window.