Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

No hurricane here, but some of the effects are similar. This happens in southeastern Ohio a few times each year. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

'Good Enough' is Usually Both Good and Enough

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:00 AM

A noticeable thunderstorm toddled through here a little after noon on Sunday. Nothing surprising there, nor in it taking the power out for most of the rest of the day.

Having lived here awhile, I have the computer and the DSL router on dedicated uninterruptible power supplies — battery backups. These do not provide anything close to the run time their manufacturers claim; in that regard they resemble cellular telephone companies’ coverage maps. But they do contain enough juice to let me perform an orderly shutdown of the computer and to go online from the iPad to report that the power is out.

Reporting blackouts falls to me because my only nearby neighbor got into a dispute with the phone company — a thing easily done, and a noble thing more often than not, for Frontier is our phone company — and they ultimately yanked his service. He is eligible for a specialized state-mandated service in which he would have a telephone for about $10 per month. I’ve offered to pay for it, and lest your head be swayed by my altruism please know that there’s a degree of self interest involved: If my house catches on fire I want there to be someone who can call the fire department.

But no. Instead, he went to town and bought himself a little cellular telephone. We have no cellular service here. It is hilly country and the nearest cell tower is more than 10 miles away. Before I got a UPS for the router, when the power went out as it does a half-dozen times each year I would have to drive almost nine miles to find enough signal to make my report.

My neighbor’s idea is that he will some day purchase a small cellular repeater and place it in the uppermost part of his house and will thereby get cell service.

If you know people like my neighbor — I suppose we’ve all been like him from time to time — you know that he’ll never do it, even if it would work, which it probably wouldn’t. His idea of installing a cellular repeater in his house is not a plan, it’s an excuse. It’s the all-too-common phenomenon of making the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s as beguiling, and as silly, as deciding not to go to church until you’ve lived a sin-free week. To use the technical term familiar to students of philosophy: aintagonna happen.

In the happy event that I were suddenly and unexpectedly to receive a great deal of money, my first call would be to a company that sells and installs solar arrays and very large batteries. (Well, no, it would be to a roofing company in hope of replacing my asphalt shingles with a proper and long-lasting metal roof. Then I’d call the solar-battery people.) It’s unlikely that any solar setup on my roof would be able to supply all the electricity I use, at least during the autumn, winter, and spring, when sunlight is attenuated. But in combination with a bank of big batteries, it would get me through several days of no power, as sometimes happens around here.

The idea is for a whole-house UPS, with far more staying power than the battery-powered backup units we can buy for our electronic devices. The idea is for me not even to notice when the power goes out.

That’s a dream in several senses of the word. It would require resources that I do not have in order to bring it to pass. Its cost would be such that unless I had a vast amount of wealth there would always be things in line ahead of it. I mean, we’re talking, what, $20,000 spent to prevent inconvenience a few days per year at most. The opportunity cost would be far too high, unless many, many other needs were met first. (That’s a difference between us and our government, to whom the idea of opportunity cost — the things you have to give up in order to do something — is entirely alien, and when it is dabbled with the resulting decision is invariably wisdom-free. I don’t want to biden an already bad situation, but the government is unconcerned about such trifles.)

I buy increasingly expensive groceries and put increasingly expensive gasoline in the car. My grand master alternative energy idea is not likely to make it from dream to plan to reality.

Instead, I have the little, unimpressive UPS backups on my computer and router. I should remember to get one for the teevee, because the huge majority of blackouts here last only a few seconds, but recycling the television after a second without power takes a couple of minutes. (I actually have an alarm clock that has a small battery backup, so it doesn’t have to be reset when the power blinks off for a second.)

But a UPS isn’t always enough. A storm my first year here in the woods left me without power for two days during the hottest and most humid part of the summer. Soon afterwards I purchased a generator, a gasoline-powered one (the propane generators are nice for those who have thousands of dollars to throw at them, but I didn’t and don’t). My generator sports a 240-volt outlet, so part of the project included my having installed a plug-in-a-box on the outside of my house, leading to a switch panel on the inside, next to the electrical box.

When the power goes out, this is the drill: fetch the generator from the barn, placing it as far from the house as the thick connecting cable allows, so that carbon monoxide doesn’t drift inside. Turn the generator switch to “on,” open the gasoline feed, and plug in the cable. Engage the generator engine’s choke and yank the starter rope. It usually starts on the second or third pull. Plug the cable into the house and go inside. Flip the row of switches that disconnect the circuits from the utility line and connect them to the generator. Enjoy electricity that’s accompanied by the muffled roar of a gas engine and that comes at a cost of seven gallons of gasoline per day. The generator doesn’t power the entire house, just the kitchen, living room, and my office, but that’s enough.

Completeness demands that I explain why those switches disconnect the circuits to various rooms from the electrical main coming into the house. Without the switches, my generated electricity would travel out from the house. There are cases in which it has killed linemen — linepersons? or, given what has happened to “chairmen,” “lines”? — who got zapped by a down-line generator while trying to restore power. This has caused power companies to send a pulse down the line (or short the line, or something) that will destroy any generator present. Home generators and power lines don’t mix.

My blackout-response system is not ideal. It is not a solution, just a get-by. But it works; plans for something grander at some vague future time don’t do anything. It’s good enough. Compared to the best arrangements imaginable, “good enough” pales. When we can achieve the best of all possible solutions far be it from me to say that we shouldn’t. But we fool ourselves if we let the perfect solution that we cannot achieve prevent us from doing what we can.

Your $10 won’t end world hunger, but that shouldn’t prevent you from making the donation, because it will feed someone somewhere. A set of sturdy wooden steps aren’t as nice as elaborate masonry ones, but you’ll grow old before your time if you wait in the yard for the latter rather than employ the former.

Ideal is, yes, ideal. But good enough is just that: good enough.

The power was out here for a time following the thunderstorm last Sunday. The initial estimate was that it would take four hours to restore. Inasmuch as there’s no one here on an iron lung, there was no special need to rush out and grab the generator. I turned on the radio and listened to Pete Hart play some bluegrass music, followed by the Tribes playing old-timey music. It was relaxing and pleasant.

But evening approached and the power still was off. It was starting to get dark, and hooking up the generator is exponentially less fun in the dark. (I’ve done it; my record is under two minutes in a driving rainstorm in the middle of the night, and the only side effect wasn’t anything a couple of band aids couldn’t fix.) So I fetched the generator from the barn and undertook the steps described above.

Everything went smoothly (well, after I remembered the “on” switch), and power flowed through part of my house. And, of course — you’ll have guessed this — before I even got the clocks reset the power came back on. I keep a nightlight on a non-generator-powered circuit so I can tell when it’s okay to switch the panel switches back and turn off the gas line on the generator and let it sputter to its halt. (This last step is very important. Our legislators have decreed that gasoline contain ethanol, a fancy word for corn squeezings. Ethanol is very bad for engines, but very good for obtaining campaign donations from organizations of corn farmers. So the carburetor needs to be run dry — otherwise, there will be corrosion and the thing won’t work next time. I know this from experience. Fortunately, there are good videos on generator carburetor replacement.)

All was back to normal. It’s surprising how we quickly forget that anything out of the ordinary had happened.

I would have phoned my neighbor to see how he’d made it through the blackout, but he doesn’t have a phone.

He plans to set one up, though. Possibly involving a satellite.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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