Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Whistling in the Dark

Thursday, 10:30 am, was when the power failed. Lights went out, fans stopped moving, the fridge's hum fell silent.
This was nothing unusual; a quick glance at the website for the Autoridad de Energia Electrica (www.aeepr.com) on an average day will show many areas with power problems and we had had a 17 hour outage ourselves a couple of weeks earlier. So it wasn't until that afternoon that my wife phoned me in work to let me know there was a problem and I reported it on the AEE website (twice, as they claimed on Twitter not to have received the first report).
[I gave my address]
That evening, as the sun went down and the lights came on, it became apparent that ours was the only house without power. I checked the fuse box – everything was normal. I also checked the main breaker – I couldn't move it. Whether this was because it was tripped or because it had simply stuck in position I couldn't tell, and there were no markings visible in the twilight to say if it was on or not (we later found it had 'ON' and 'OFF' marked in black-on-black, really useful in a power cut). We phoned AEE – having to use the long-distance 'metro' number as the 'isla' number was permanently engaged – and heard our sector on the (long) list of sectors with problems, so assumed my report had entered the system.
Later that night we went around to a friend's house and charged up our mobile phone, while also using their internet connection to submit an amended report on the AEE  website to say it was only our house that was affected.
After a night spent by gaslight, with a battery-powered fan to keep us cool (thanks, Coleman), I headed off to work on Friday morning. I checked to see if our sector was on the list of sectors with problems on the website – it wasn't, so I reported it again. As we had now been without power for 24 hours I gave it the reference '24h sin luz' and again tweeted the fact that I had reported it.
[I gave them my address again, noting that it hadn't changed since yesterday]
[Sondy chipped in with a description of where the house was]
[Translation: It has not been reported on the webpage. Send your name, address, telephone number, and account number]
[The web system didn't give a confirmation number, but I hoped they might be referring to the reference you were required to give when submitting a report]
I then reported it again, in case I'd missed something on the final page, with the reference 'Still no power'. All the final page said was 'Su sector ha sido notificado' (your sector has been notified), so I told them this as well.
No such luck!
Eventually they surrendered, and gave me an email address – for the press office! I emailed my details to the press office, who were able to put my complaint into the system. Finally, after 25h without power and over 20 hours after my first report, I had a case number. Soon the problem would be fixed. As if...
By six that evening, nothing had happened, so I tried phoning AEE again at about twenty-past. After ten minutes spent listening to the list of sectors with reported problems (which we didn't feature on this time) and ten minutes on hold listening to a message saying I could check their website at ww-prensa-com (two 'w's, and 'dash' instead of 'dot'), I finally got through to a human.
I had told the system earlier that I wanted to communicate in English, and the repeated messages about the website had been in English, but I still wasn't surprised to find the system had routed me to an operator who didn't speak English. This is perfectly normal here.
I also wasn't surprised when her response to my telling her I had had no power for 32 hours was to hang up on me. Puerto Ricans are some of the most helpful people around – except for the ones whose job is to actually help customers, who will generally give up at the first hurdle. Hanging up is a common (I might almost say standard) response to getting a call from a customer who doesn't speak perfect Spanish. While there are English-speaking operators, the systems never have any way of routing calls to them or transferring calls once you've actually got through. If it's really important, you can keep trying until you get lucky...
That evening we went to our local internet cafe (Burger King) and sent a complaint over Twitter to the mayor's office about AEE's lack of response. We managed to avoid getting ketchup on the tablet.

The next morning I drove around to the local garage to get milk and two bags of ice to fill our cool box. Luckily ice is readily available around here, and it turned out to be useful later.
Shortly after this, we were contacted by a friend who's brother in law is an electrician. We arranged that he (the brother in law) would stop by later and see if he could do anything.
About 12:30 our mobile phone beeped to let us know we had an answerphone message. We thought that was a bit odd, as it hadn't rung beforehand. The message turned out to be from an AEE engineer, giving us a direct number to call if we still had power problems. It also turned out to have been left at 6:30 the previous night, while I had been on the phone to AEE! It had taken Claro (our mobile phone provider) 18 hours to let us know there was a message waiting for us, although they had managed to pass on two adverts for premium text-message subscription services during that period.
We couldn't make out the whole of the phone number – in rapid-fire Spanish – ourselves, so we asked our neighbour if she could help. She not only deciphered the number, but phoned them up and gave directions to the house (as noted before, Puerto Ricans are incredibly helpful when not being employed to help people).
About one o'clock, Kanky, the electrician, arrived. He did something to the main breaker and turned it back on. We had power! He said the AEE engineers should check the input voltages when they came, refused any payment, and went.
A few minutes later, just as we'd finished sorting through what had survived in the freezer, the power at the front of the house went off again – we had lost a phase.
For those who aren't familiar with electrical phases, I should explain that power is normally delivered along three-phase lines (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-phase_electric_power). According to Wikipedia, most domestic lines are a single phase, split off from the three-phase line. Here, however, we have two phases coming into the house. One of these had gone out, cutting power to the front of the house.
However, we still had power at the back, and so our internet connection was up. I found I had a reply from the mayor's office, asking for my address so they could report it to AEE, so I sent this on and resumed waiting for the AEE engineers.
They finally showed up at about 2:30, looked at our system, sprayed it with WD40 (or something similar), went up on the roof, and told us that the J-pipe the cables entered by had rusted through and fallen over so water was getting into the main breaker area. This was causing corrosion, which was why we were having problems. We'd have to get an electrician in ourselves to fix it. They did manage to restore the second phase briefly, but it had died again before they managed to pack up and leave.
There was still time for one last hurrah from the @AEEONLINE twitter team. At about 3pm, just as the engineers were leaving, they responded to the conversation with the mayor to say for the final time that there were no reported problems in our sector!
More phone calls, to see if Kanky would be able to come back and do the repairs, and to our landlady to get permission (again via our neighbour as the landlady speaks no English and my Spanish isn't up to that kind of negotiation). It turned out that Kanky could come on Monday (the Labor Day holiday), so we set about running cables around the house to power what we could:
"I've re-routed power from living quarters to cryogenic system" – the fridge was plugged-in in the bedroom via an extension cable.
The main computer was re-located from the (powerless) front room to another bedroom, which we renamed the Battle Bridge for the duration.
The telly, somewhat bizarrely, did have power, even though the lights and other sockets in the living room were out. Another extension cable was deployed from the telly's expansion board to a standard lamp, giving us light in that room.
Sunday passed without further drama, except for me taking the Ice Bucket Challenge. We had the cool-box we'd been keeping the milk and cool drinks in while the fridge was out of action, and it still contained a mix of ice and meltwater. Now, it got poured over my head!
Monday morning Kanky came at around 9 am and got working on the system. He had to arrange for AEE to come and disconnect the power so he could work on it. At the same time they removed the meter, and managed to drop the glass cover which shattered on the steps below.
By 6pm Kanky was finished – we had new components replacing the water-damaged ones and a new J-pipe on the roof to stop any more water coming in. At 7:15 AEE reconnected the power and re-installed the meter, and we were back on the grid!
Only one problem remained: the meter had no cover and was exposed to the elements. According to the AEE engineers, this was the responsibility of another division, so they couldn't do anything about it. Someone would come along the next day to deal with it.
They didn't. As I write, rain is lashing against the house and threatening to soak the meter. We're water-tight on the roof, but AEE have left a gaping hole in our side.

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