Sunday, January 03, 2010

Electrical Outage

Yesterday morning at 3:30am the electricity went out in my house. I woke up from a dead sleep because all of a sudden my house was silent...and my alarm clock made a loud click as it's juice was cut off.

I laid in bed for a while trying to decide if the outage was just my house or the entire block. I got up and looked across the street and their front door lights were still on. I tried to look down my block to see if any lights were on. Couldn't tell one way or another.  I ended up calling the electric company to report the outage and the automatic message told me they were aware of the outage and were working on it. I'm sure the electric company was a little under the gun because the temperature was dangerously low (-15 degrees, I think) Not a good night for an entire neighborhood to be out of electricity.

I lulled myself back to sleep by thinking about everything I'd have to reset in the morning. My water heater & furnace are totally gas, so I'm always pretty well covered during outages.

When I first moved into my house the electricity went out a lot; every other week or so. It was always accompanied by a huge bang of the transformer blowing. I still have a nice collection of flashlights and candles from those years.

So, yesterday morning (well, afternoon) I woke up. It was a little cold. The electricity was still out. I got up and the first thing I noticed out from under the covers is that it was really the house. I went out to check my thermometer and it told me the interior of the house was 51 degrees.  Huh?

I have a really old furnace. Really old. It was coal and converted to gas in the 1950s. I love the thing. It is not dependent on anything. It runs without problem through anything.

My heart sank. I ran downstairs. I opened the furnace door and the area usually filled with big flames was not filled with big flames. I've watched this furnace get checked every year, but it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't know exactly where the pilot light was. I've never had to light it in my entire time in the house...and a pilot light is a whole lot easier to find when it's lit. The basement didn't smell like gas and my CO monitors had not triggered.

Nothing on my furnace is electrical. I started running possibilities through my head: a) the electrical company cut the gas to houses while they worked over night to prevent any dangerous furnace issues. b) the basement got so cold it affected gas flow; c) my furnace randomly chose this moment to give out unrelated to electrical; d) the upstairs wall thermostat was electrical and somehow triggered the furnace to shut down; and/or e) God was punishing me.

I went back up to the relative warmth of the first floor to think about what I needed to do next....and how I was going to pay for an entirely new furnace in a day.

All of a sudden the electricity came back on. So did the furnace.

I ran back downstairs. Said a quick little prayer and opened the furnace door to a big bunch of beautiful gas flames. If the furnace wasn't so dusty, I would have hugged it.

None of the utilities have Customer Services during the weekend, so I'm still not sure what happened. I have my money on the upstairs wall thermostat being electrical and turning down the flames (the pilot light stayed on). Note to self - learn how to disable the wall thermostat...and learn where the pilot light is.

There is nothing like 30 minutes of thinking you might have to pay for a new furnace (and abatement and new duct work) to put things in perspective for you in the New Year. Whew!


Northland Stories said...

My old natural gas furnaces have always had an electrical thermostat and electrical blower on them, that might have caused the cold furnace effect. I noticed that during a power outage once too, thinking the heat would stay on when it didn't.

missmillie said...

Unfortunately, I can speak from experience that it's no picnic to replace a gravity furnace in MN in January. I had to choose a furnace and arrange for asbestos abatement all in one day. At the very least, do your furnace research now. Decide what company you're going to go with. One stage vs. 3 stage furnace, etc. etc. Ask your questions now, so you're ready to go if the worst should happen. But really, seriously consider having it done this summer and save yourself a considerable amount of drama. Not sure if the federal tax incentive continued into 2010, but if it did, it's worth $1500 to you. It's a gift. And oh my God, I now even have central air conditioning! Best of luck, and Happy New Year! Love your blog!

StuccoHouse said...

Northland Stories - I have a a gravity furnace with no fans. The upstairs wall thermostat must have been the culprit & I obviously need to learn how to over ride it. The furnace itself isn't electrical. Live & learn.

Missmille - I can imagine replacing the furnace quickly can be a big headache - especially in winter. I have done my homework and am prepared should the worst happen. That said, I have zero interest in getting into the furnace replacement cycle until I'm forced to (kicking & screaming). It would take approx 10-12 yrs to receive payback of the cost of a new furnace and by then I'd be well into the life span of the new furnace. Ugh.

I really do like my furnace and fingers-crossed, knock-on-wood it will out live me :) Although, you are welcome to say "I told you so"....if you read a post entitled "Buying a Furnace in a Day" anytime soon!

Old House Lover said...

I've also got a very old gravity feed hot water boiler. Indirectly your furnace is electrical. The thermostat and the part that tells the furnace to fire up or not is electrical. I don't know the name of the part on the furnace that is electrical but it is. I believe that it's low voltage (ours uses a transformer) and have wondered if anybody made a kind of battery backup that would keep the boiler working (for a few hours at least) if the power went out. Also, I've got a warning, be careful opening the door to the burner if it's not fired up. Our repair guy did it the last time he was here and the burner came on and flames shot at least a foot out that door. Fortunately both of us were far enoungh away to not get burnt. So, if you do open it, do it at arm's length and stay off to the side.

StuccoHouse said...

Old House Lover - I think the part you are referring to is the wall thermostat (mine is pictured in the post). You are right, that is electrical - but not part of the furnace.

If you have flames bursting out of your furnace door, I'd certainly have your gas flow and chimney checked - that's not normal and sounds like a gas build up to me. Yikes.

I would love to have hot water heat.

Amy said...

That's terrible! I guess I should buy more blankets in case my power goes out. Glad it eventually came back on. Did they say what caused the outage?

StuccoHouse said...

Amy - I'm sure it was the wall thermostat. It makes sense. I suspect my electricity has never been off long enough in winter for me to notice the furnace go on stand-by. So, it took me a while to figure it out. I have my furnace checked every year...just need to get them to show me how to by-pass the thermostat in an emergency. Funny thing is in bed, under my covers, I was toasty warm.

Leah@storybookranch said...

It's like winning the lottery when you've replaced the furnace in your mind and then find out you don't have to in real life. Been there...ahh!

I have hot water, baseboard heaters with a boiler fueled by natural gas, but when the electricity is out-it doesn't work,either.

Old House Lover said...

If you look at "Grendil" you'll see there's a thin pipe that runs verticaly near the front (this should be the gas supply) with what looks like an electrical wire of some sort taped to it. That is probably the wire from the thermostat above and it goes to a part on the furnace that's also electrically operated that tells the burner to turn on and off when it get's cold/hot enough.

As far as the flames coming out the door, the repair guy said it was like a backdraft because of the door being open and the fire moving towards the air.

StuccoHouse said...

Leah - I know! That exactly how I felt.

Old House Lover - That wire you are looking at goes to a 1924 thermostat ;) As I mentioned in my post (see photo) I DO have a wall thermostat that is connected to the furance. Yes, the thermostat is electric. I understand that. I understand how it works. As I mentioned in my post, I need to learn how to bypass that so the gas furnace does not go off with the wall thermostat.

It has just never been noticeable when the electric has gone off before, so it came as a surprise and cause me some initial panic.

We've got this one covered :)

Old House Lover said...

I'm sorry that I'm annoying you, that was never my intention. The part that the thermostat connects to is a electrically controlled gas valve. Here's a web page that explains it:

Ask your furnance guy I'm pretty sure he'll tell you the same thing. I think the only way to bypass an electric outage would be to provide another source of electricity as in my idea of a battery backup. Once again I'm sorry to have annoyed you with this and I won't be mentioning it again.

StuccoHouse said...

Old House Journal - I'm just wondering if you read my original post. You are repeatedly telling me exactly what I said in my original post (as well as my numerous responses to you)

I understand that the wall thermostat is electric. Yes, you are right, it tells my gas furnace how much heat it should put out (not the pilot light). I suspect you are getting confused with modern furnaces.

Yes, as I indicated numerous times I will ask my furnace guy about bypassing.

I think we can let this rest now. Please.

Black Dog's Photographer said...

Wow, I'd of been worried with how cold it's been here in MN lately. Is this the power outage I heard about on the news?

BTW: I did ask my hubs, who is an electrician, if he knew anything about bypassing the wall thermostat on your old gravity furnace but he did not. Sorry, I'm no help. ;)

StuccoHouse said...

Black Dog - My mom said it was on the news and affected a large part of Minneapolis. I thought it was just my block at the time. I called the electrical company around 3:30am when it first went off, and they estimated it would be fixed in a couple of hours, so I just went back to sleep and slept right through most of it. Who knew. I probably should have been a little more worried about some of my neighbors. Will have to mention it at our next block party.

Thanks for asking your hubby :) I think I have a pretty good idea of to do it...just need to run it by a pro. I've been here 7 years and this is the first time heat has been an issue during an outage, so it's not a big concern.

Anonymous said...

did you ever figure out how to override, i'm currently in the same situation, ice storm, elec not predicted to be restored til 12/28 and I remember having heat and no electricity before I had amodern thermostat put on. ther has to be a way to make the furnace come back on. please respond here if you found a way will check back when at a computer again.

StuccoHouse said...

Anon - I never did figure out how to override. That said, I agree there was to be a way. At the bottom of my furnace is the little box that was added when my furnace was converted from coal to gas. There is a little screw there with two options "pilot light" and "manual". There is also a thermostat on the furnace itself that is linked to the electrical thermostat upstairs. Sorry, I can't provide more help. Next time I have it checked, I'll ask....although that doesn't help you now.

Rainbows in Wool said...

Thanks anyway, well I guess I call the company that put in the new modern programable thermostat and beg them to give me back the old kind, if they can, the one with the mercury bulb that tips and turns the furnace on. it's cold it my house today.

Anonymous said...

After overhauling my 1950s lowboy, IN FEBRUARY, here is some unsolicited advice...assuming you still have your gravity furnace: REPLACE THE GAS VALVE (the thing that allows gas into the burner) AND THE THERMOPILE (the pilot flame-powered unit that powers the former and thermostat). These don't last indefinitely, and modern units (for gas fireplaces, bakery ovens, and whatnot) are still available. The pilots on the old gas valves were also not 'failsafe,' meaning that gas still issues if the flame goes out. Relighting the new ones is straightforward. A flaky millivolt furnace is probably due to a fading gas valve and/or thermopile. And get the HVAC guy to clean the burners. Expect to shell out a few hundred bucks.

BTW, I kept my lowboy in service, because the peculiarities of venting my water heater in my house meant springing another $1,000 or so for a direct vent heater, even though I just got a new one. And even with Wretched Snotley and Just-In Turdeau carbon taxes, a $7k 95% furnace install that lasts 15-20 years won't pay for itself.

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