Saturday, 25 December 2010

'Twas the night before (a British rural) Christmas

    Last night, I made a useful discovery. An Android phone running a web browser displaying the Google search home page makes a handy emergency light. Useful to know, should you find yourself in a snowbound farmhouse when the power goes out.
    We started yesterday afternoon in the car en route to my parents' place. Only twenty miles, but on a snowbound Christmas Eve that distance meant little. The AA told us the trunk road and motorway were at a standstill so we were taking the minor roads all the way, twenty miles of hard packed glistening icy snow in a little hatchback with summer tyres.
    If you were in these parts yesterday afternoon I hope you managed to get outside, it was a beautiful day. Our route took us through open countryside, a large tract of wetland floodplain. If I hadn't been concentrating on the road so much I'd have considered it one of the best drives of the year, we were in a Christmas card landscape. Other motorists hadn't been as lucky as us, we passed more than one hole in the hedge and one rather new 4WD being pulled out of the ditch by a tractor, but aside from a few slightly sideways moments we made it to my parents' place without significant incident.
    My sister and my mother were fixing up Christmas decorations to the accompaniment of too-loud choral music on the radio. My dad escaped to feed the cattle, my wife holed up in our bedroom with a book, and I made myself scarce, walking my mother's dog in the snow. I don't want to give you the idea things were fraught, but my close relatives can be rather strident at times. The dog didn't agree with my choice of distance so I couldn't escape for long. I guess it was a little cold for her.
    So there I was, at dusk on Christmas Eve, trying to evade the Christmas chaos and wishing my medication didn't preclude the booze and I could quaff at a nice glass of the 2009 pressing, when the lights went out. That was when I found that my phone casts a surprising amount of light, as I groped for the stairs to find out what was up.
    My parents house has a slightly older electrical installation. It has fuses rather than the more modern circuit breakers, and it is protected by an earth leakage trip switch rather than the more modern residual current devices.  Somewhere in the house, an electrical current had leaked into the earth wire, and that current activated an electromagnet in the trip switch, disconnecting the supply.
    The task facing my dad and I was to find out where the leak lay, and to disconnect it. Have you ever had to do this? Think of it as a witchhunt. You are plagued by irrational suspicion of your appliances. You seize upon the suspect toaster or kettle, unplug it in truimph and return to the trip switch, only to see it thrown again by the fault. I once saw an exquisite practical joke played on someone unpleasant in a student union executive position, an acquaintance of mine wired a transient suppressor (Device designed to protect electronics from overvoltage, intended to be connected from live to neutral) from live to earth in one of the wall sockets in his office and sat back and watched the appliance witchhunt begin as the trip switch went out randomly several times an hour.
    In our case the Usual Suspects proved not to be at fault. So I found myself wandering round a darkened snowbound British farmhouse holding a guttering candle and looking at electrical circuits. My parents are in no way ready for Jenny mode so I'm the scruffy bloke for all this, but I was left wondering whether Goth makeup, a long black wig and a velvet gown might be more appropriate. When you are facing a Christmas without hot water, the electric blower in your bedroom or the chance to watch the Queen and a Bond movie on the telly, such things seem inordinately funny for some reason.
    Eventually we traced the fault to one of the downstairs lighting circuits. With its fuse pulled we now have reliable power back, but half the house has random lighting. A workshop inspection lamp here, a halogen floodlight there. Somewhere in my near future is an afternoon with a Megger finding out where the fault is, but for now I'm happy to live with odd lighting.
    I don't want to give you an inaccurate picture of my family, for the rest of the year they're surprisingly normal. But at Christmas time, there's always something that goes amiss. The dog starts chucking up everywhere, or the Calor gas gives out just as the turkey's about to go in the oven. Just for once I'd prefer an uneventful Christmas!
    However your Christmas went, I hope you enjoyed yourself.


  1. You made this up, right?

    Caroline XXX

  2. Being the fundamentally lazy engineer type person that I am, I would probably have started by pulling out one fuse at a time and resetting the earth leakage switch, working my way through until I found the one that was causing the problem. :)

    Once you worked out that it was a light circuit, did you make sure that every light switch on the circuit was turned off and then try again with that circuit in case it was a particular light fitting rather than in the wiring?

  3. I know the feeling of having to be the "scruffy bloke", when something dirty or laborious has to be done. My mother often relies on me at those times.

    I'm so glad that after over a couple of decades of living in old inner city apartments, with 35 amp electrical service supplied by ancient cloth insulated wiring and screw in fuse boxes, that I now live in a modern house, with a 200 amp circuit breaker panel.

    Kudos on using your phone for a flashlight! Good thinking!

    Melissa XX

  4. Yous got rural in Britain? :-)

    We have a quite a lot of power outages. Even after the local utility sent a letter saying "Sorry"! The outages are fewer, but you can't stop idiots crashing into poles.

    I've used my cell to light a path more than once. I'm not sure if that's a sign of ingenuity or a sign that the United States has one of the poorest power distribution networks in the western world...

    On the other hand, I can - from experience - firmly recommend against doing anything DIT-ish in anything like a decent gown. With heels. Believe me, you don't want to do that. :-)

    A Meggers, hmm? Long time, no hear. :-)

    Carolyn Ann

  5. I used to have a free app for the iPhone that just lit the screen for use as a torch.

    The Desire that I replaced it with is even better using the LED flash for the camera as a torch - for which it's better suited than being used as an actual flash :)

    Good luck with the leak hunt!


  6. Hey! I wanted a break from work! Here I am resting at home and reading all about work......sheesh can't a girl have a break? LOL.....I think Alice's approach would probably have been mine too simply to get some power on but wait a wouldn't work if the leak was on the neutral side........where's that Megger?
    I hope the day went well after that. Did you get to quaff any of the amber nectar then or were you too busy thawing out the dog? LOL..
    Shirley Anne xxx

  7. Morning everyone,
    No, it's all true. Except the bit about me being a bloke, I made that one up.
    And yes, we do have rural in the UK. In darkest Oxfordshire you can get a surprising number of miles from main roads and civilisation. Power cuts are not uncommon, every now and then a farmer hits a pole with a tractor or something. It's why we have candles to hand, and a generator waiting should we need it.
    My Megger is a venerable piece of kit. With a wind-up handle and all. TBH I've never before had to use it in anger, I picked it up because it came my way, but unlike some of my more exotic RF test gear it's stayed on the shelf. Mind you, so has all the other gear in the past few years.
    We followed the bit-by-bit approach, but couldn't nail it down. We suspected a strip-light, but the fault continued even with it disconnected. So it's somewhere in the circuit itself. It'll probably be fairly obvious and easily fixable.
    I can think of one advantage in doing this in the maxed-out girly evening wear, acrylic nails don't conduct electricity!
    And with that thought, I will leave you, no doubt scarred for life...

  8. Its great to have stories to tell of times at Christmas and it sounds like you do have a few!
    Have a great new year.