Thursday, 20 December 2012

And then the lights went off ...

At 5.28pm last night (Wednesday 19th) we had an electrical supply power cut. At first I thought that it was just our trip switches tripping out ... but a quick check revealed that they were all in place. I looked out of the front door at the houses on the opposite side of the road, but they all had lights that were on. I was just about to recheck the trip switches and the mains switch when one of my next door neighbours opened his front door and asked me if we had lost all our electrical power as well. A quick survey of other nearby houses showed that a small number of them were without power.

Whilst I contacted Powernet – the company that owns the electrical supply system – on my mobile 'phone, my neighbours made sure that everyone had some form of lighting in the form of candles or battery-powered lights. My conversation with Powernet started with me having to get past the 'If this press ... If that press ... ' automated response system ... followed by a meaningful interface with some voice recognition software that could not understand my postcode. Finally, after about three minutes – and at a cost of 14p per minute – I actually managed to report the fault to a customer care representative ... who told me that the system was not showing any faults. He then proceeded to insist that I checked my trip switches ... again! When I eventually got him to understand that there were a number of houses nearby that were also affected, he agreed to notify the engineers that there was a fault.

By the time we eventually went to bed at 11.30pm the house was getting very cold. (Our gas-fired central heating has an electric pump and electronic control system and therefore stopped working when the power cut started.) At 6.30am, after a very uncomfortable and cold night's sleep, the burglar alarm black-up battery ran out of power ... and the alarm went off! I telephoned the alarm company on my mobile 'phone to ask what to do, and they sent an alarm engineer to disconnect the system. By the time he arrived at 8.20am, Powernet had sent me a text to explain what they were doing.

It appeared that the mains power cable had burnt out in several places, and that the engineers had managed to replace part of it by midnight. Some houses now had mains electrical power but some – including mine – were not likely to be reconnected for some time. The earliest this might be would be midday ... and if the fault was more serious (and this would not be apparent until they had excavated and checked the mains cable) it might much later.

Powernet followed this text message up with a further message at 8.50am. This asked if there were any vulnerable people in our house so that Powernet could contact the Red Cross to come to their aid! (By this time matters had developed from an annoyance into something approaching a disaster. Our two freezers were full of food, and by this time there was a real danger that the internal temperature in the freezers would be more than 0° Centigrade and the food would be ruined. In addition the batteries of our mobile 'phones were reaching the 20% level and our back-up battery packs were indicating that they were only capable of pushing this back up to 40% before they were discharged.)

Just after 10.00am a text message update informed me that the team dealing with the problem had requested that temporary mobile generators be brought in to provide us with electrical power whilst they continued to repair the mains power cable. It was hoped that the generators would be in place by 4.00pm at the latest.

At 11.15am two appliances from the local Fire Brigade arrived outside our house. It appeared that the automatic fire alarm in one of the houses affected by the power cut had run out of back-up battery power and triggered a response. After explaining the situation to the firefighters – who had not been informed of the power cut – they left ... just as the Red Cross arrived to give assistance to any vulnerable people affected by the power cut.

By just after midday a generator arrived and was set up ... and began providing power for almost all the homes that were still without power ... but not ours! I checked with the engineers, who informed me that the cable serving our house and that of our immediate neighbours still needed to be checked. If it was not damaged, then we would also be connected to the generator. If not, then further excavation work would be required.

All this was confirmed by a text message at 2.00pm ... and at 2.15pm the lights came on ... went off again after a few seconds ... and then came on and stayed on! As soon as we had power we made sure that the central heating and hot water system was working properly, then that the alarm system had reconnected, and finally that all the devices that we had been using during the power cut were recharged.

This incident was a reminder of just how much we depend upon electricity to provide what modern society thinks of as being 'the basics' ... and how important it is to have a back-up plan when the supply fails. A recent newspaper article implied that this sort of failure would become more likely as the power infrastructure began to break down due to higher demand and little or no maintenance.

Welcome to the twenty-first century!


  1. That's a tough situation to be in Bob. Glad you are both OK though!

    Merry Christmas


  2. Jim Duncan,

    It could have been worse! At least I have now managed to have a shower which both warmed and cleaned me up.

    A Merry Christmas to you too!

    All the best,


  3. Fortunately, here in Africa (Kenya and South Africa) we never experience things like this.

    Oh, I mean where the power company is contactable, where they phone you, where an ambulance is available etc.

    Power outages? At least weekly for up to 8 or 9 hours.

    Lucky us :-)


  4. Arthur,

    I suspect that when things like this happen frequently, you are better able to cope than we were.

    My neighbours and I have learned a lesson from what we experienced over the past twenty-four hours, and plans are already afoot to ensure that when this happens again - as I suspect it will - we will have some form of heat and light.

    All the best,


  5. Evening Bob,
    I dont want to worry you, but I have been subject to three power cuts already this year. Two were caused by a total failure at our sub station and the third was some moron setting alight to a wooden pylon!.
    I get the feeling that the UK is in for a bit of the third world.
    Can I suggest that if possible you invest in a dual fuel log burning stove as a fallback,it is a great alternative for such events.
    Thanks Robbie.

  6. The last time we had to buy a new freezer I remember noting there was quite a difference in the times for which they could keep the contents frozen in the event of a power failure. It may not matter often, but when it does...

  7. Rob3rod (Robbie),

    We have had similar power cuts over the past few years ... but none that were as bad as this.

    I suspect that you are correct in your assertion that this is the sort of thing that the UK is going to experience more and more in coming years ... and your suggestion regarding the stove is a good one.

    All the best,


  8. Nigel Drury,

    You are absolutely correct.

    Our new freezer was switched off for nearly 24 hours, but its contents were still frozen when the power came back on. The slightly older freezer needed less than 30 minutes to get back to its operating temperature and its contents also seem to have survived unaffected.

    All the best,



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