with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Off and On and Off and On and Off and On

Photograph of part of our tool kit, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenYears ago, a co-worker of Brent’s awoke in the night to a terrible cackling sound. He got up to find the lights turning on and off and on and off. The cackling happened between the lights going on and off. Puzzled, but suspiciously aware of the source of the sound, he stepped outside of his bedroom into the stairway landing which was built around the huge cage in which his giant parrot normally slept through the night. They’d finished remodeling the house not long before.

The bird had managed to stretch his leg out far from the cage to reach the light switch. He was having a blast, laughing hysterically, between turning the light on and off and on and off and on and off.

Well, folks, since we returned from our evacuation from Hurricane Katrina, that’s been our life for the past five weeks. Our electricity has been on and off and off and off and on and off. And we’re not laughing.

The power in the campground was going out from minutes to hours during the first few weeks after the hurricane. It was bad after Hurricane Katrina, but it also got bad again after Hurricane Rita. Finally, it slowed to a trickle of fast on and offs throughout the day. I got so frustrated with the computer turning off in the middle of an unsaved essay or project, I gave up doing anything that required more than a few minutes of concentration, saving what I was working on more frequently than I worked on it.

Eventually I gave in and bought a backup battery. It gives me 15 minutes of backup electricity before it shuts down, which is more than plenty of time to finish what I’m doing and turn off the computer – well, most of the time. Our laptop hadn’t arrived from being repaired, so I was at the mercy of electricity.

I was really busy helping out in the campground and around the neighborhood cleaning up and just helping where and how I could, so I turned more of my energy into that.

Part of the problem is the fact that there were so many campers, many of them in 30 plus foot long fifth wheels and monster motor homes. They would be gone all day but leave their power hungry air conditioners running. We kept asking them to not do that, but there is asking, then there is reminding, and then there is the doing. Doing didn’t happen very often.

The constant pull on an old, already overused, and weak system, barely repaired from the hurricanes, caused everyone to suffer with frequent electricity outages. Finally, within the past two weeks, the electricity in the campground finally stabilized.

But our little corner of the campground woods continued to have trouble. It is a rule of trailers running on 30 amp power to not exceed 30 amps. You can do the math easily. 15+45 is not equal to 30 amps. It is equal to burned out breakers. So the rule for those who live in 30 amp worlds is to never turn on enough power that will exceed or push the 30 amp barrier.

This is the rule: Air conditioner on, microwave off. Air conditioner off, microwave on. Air conditioner off, microwave off, toaster on. You get the picture.

With all our electrical problems, I’d turn off the air conditioner and turn on the microwave and the power would jump off then on. I’d turn off the microwave and turn on the air conditioner, and the power would jump off and on. The air conditioner would automatically switch from cool to fan and again the power would go off and on. These are our biggest power drains, so we never run them at the same time, but this was incredibly frustrating.

Brent spent most of last weekend going through our internal electrical grid. We checked the air conditioner and it’s working fine – no sign that it needs replacement or repair. He went through the circuit box and traced the electricity he so painstakingly installed 10 years ago, bypassing the inverter and generator and replacing the most important breakers, and still off and on and off and on. His two multi-meters got a serious workout.

He found the power fluctuation began at the power pole, so we called in the big guns, Alabama Power, to figure out what was wrong.

Alabama Power truck wedged between trailers, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenMy electricity is direct to Alabama Power. This means that I have my own power and I’m not on the main campground line. But I am on the same”grid”, for lack of a better term. Alabama Power arrived promptly Monday morning and the guy went to work poking and proding.

Alabama Power snorkel moves out over our trailer to replace power cable, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenHe found that the wire in the main box was too weak for the power pull so he replaced that. He replaced the wiring going up the pole through the meter. Then he discovered that the new power cable replaced over our trailer after Katrina, destroyed when a tree fell through the line, was badly installed.

So he went to the main transformer in the area, cleaned up and replaced wrong or damaged parts and pieces, then wedged his truck and snorkel in between my trailer and my neighbors (they had to roll up their awning to make room) to replace the entire cable and connections.

Alabama Power repairing power cables from snorkel over our trailer, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenOver four hours later, all without electricity, he still couldn’t find the specific problem, but at least the power at the pole was more stable and consistent.

During the process, with the help of a neighbor who worked for Alabama Power for over 30 years doing the same thing as the lineman soaring over my trailer in his snorkel, we “might” have tracked the problem down to our power cable.

All this on and off and on and off combined with power surges had taken its toll on the trailer power cable itself. Brent has ordered a new power cable which should hopefully fix the problem. We hope. Ever the optimist. Not.

So the problems continue but with less frequency, and the backup battery is now doing its job keeping the computer on longer. It also helps that overnight the temperatures dropped by 15 degrees and so we only run the air conditioner during the hottest hours of the day. I was actually able to work almost an entire day without any major loss of electricity. Wow. Have I got some serious catching up to do.

Off and on and off and on and off and on again….we’re still not laughing. Give us time. This might be funny some day.

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