Summer didn’t end according to plan with lazy pool days, a reveal of the pool lounge area for you, and gearing up for back to school with ample time to get organized. Instead, we placed a 911 summoning for the local fire company, nursed a weeklong illness, and then went back to school playing catch-up after almost no swimming in the second half of August. Then we had the kids home sick again a week into the school year. Pool reveal to come (check stories for chronological updates starting today), but for now, a cautionary tale about trees meeting above-ground power lines.
One morning at the end of August, I woke up ready to get the house in shape for back-to-school in a few weeks. This year, we started after Labor Day.
I overslept, but had laundry in the washer by 7AM. We got the kids up and as they headed downstairs I told them about my big plans for the day, which I knew would realistically take the whole week: Tidying up the laundry room, and working on our calendar wall to get organized! Next week? Laundry zero.
I had my husband bring down a wall file organizer I had thrifted long ago that had landed in my office and become a home to various colors of construction paper.
The feverish excitement of soon-to-come class assignments, school supplies and a clean and organized hub in our home was palpable – a rarity on a rainy morning, which usually drains all of us, but the kids in particular – before the day has even begun. Breakfast breezed by into playtime with new toys from my youngest’s family birthday celebration the day before.
After a few minutes getting a my checklist organized, I joined the kids on the carpet to help assemble and play. But, almost-five-year-olds don’t need help anymore, so my eldest and I flitted back and forth a bit while stickers were applied meticulously and independently.
We heard a loud noise outside – “transformer,” I noted to myself and cringed, hoping the power wouldn’t go out. The kids were on alert, particularly the eldest who was without a hundred stickers to keep busy with.
You see, we live in a wooded neighborhood. It was a major selling point for us when we moved in. Our backyard is a cacophony of birds, cicadas, and crickets whose sounds welcomely infiltrate our sunroom. The rush of the trees roars in the breeze.
The snap of them falling one by one cracks through the air only once every few months if we’re lucky. I didn’t hear the snap that day. Only the transformer. And a few new, strange buzzes that I told the kids were “just the transformer – the box outside that lets us know we’re getting rain.” Writing that line I’ve repeated to my children so many times to share with the world solidifies my feeling PECO needs to bury our power lines. They won’t. It’s too expensive.
Then the lights flickered. “No, no, there’s no storm today, we shouldn’t lose power. It’s okay.”
“I’m not sure why the lights are flickering.”
“I promise there’s no storm. Here, let’s check the forecast. See, no storm! And the lights are back to normal.”
“But Mommy, I see lights flickering!!”
Brownout. Then re-illumination.
I, facing the other direction, saw no lights flickering. “No, they stopped. It’s okay. We’re okay.”
The box that lets us know we’re getting rain got louder, and suddenly all of the lights in the house were flickering – rapidly. Then the appliances were whirring on and off. My interrupted load of laundry clicked and grumbled. The fridge sounded like it might take flight. The chirping of the coffee maker, microwave and oven overtook the sounds of nature in the sunroom – which I noticed must have died down amidst the noise from the electrical equipment: they were now loud bangs and sizzles.
Then my husband rushed downstairs to tell us the power lines he could view from his office were sparking. The flickering lights my child saw from inside our home were backlit in periphery by sparks running up and down our street’s power lines – all alight in what looked to be tiny little fires along them, popping like extremely loud popcorn.
“Who do we call? What do we do? 911? PECO?”
An electrical smoke smell was filling the back of the house. Then my youngest said, “Smoke! Smoke!”
My gaze traced that little arm past its almost-five-year-old fingers, that had been just moments ago determinedly aligning stickers, out the window of the sunroom to see smoke coming out of the soffit above our laundry room.
“911 says to get out of the house!” We were already moving in that direction.
PECO, after hearing the lines were down and there were electrical burning smells and smoke said, “Okay…do you have power? Are things flickering, or just off?”
I replied, with (paraphrased of course), “911 told us to get out of the house. There’s smoke coming from the wall behind our laundry room and they’re sending fire. The power lines are on fire up and down the street and you need to get out here.”
Shoes, phones and children in hand we rushed outside.
“We’ll get someone out as soon as we can, ma’am.”
Mommy mode kicked in, trying to fix the problems I could. “Does anyone need the bathroom?” Nobody. Too early for snacks, which were inside our smelly, smoke-emitting house anyway.
I was out of tricks.
Several minutes went by and our next-door neighbor approached. No smells or smoke at their house. Just flickering.
We noticed and exterior outlet underneath the smoky soffit had a charred, ashen halo surrounding it about a foot out. No fire visible anywhere. Just smells, and the smoke.
Then we heard the fire trucks. Five fire trucks swept up the street and checking in with neighbors. We filled them in, and showed one the back door to access our house. The man in charge. I did think, “should’ve tidied last week.” I knew it didn’t matter in this moment, but I cared.
Another firefighter replaced the first. He stopped at the outlet for a look before going inside. And then another joined him. They asked about the breaker, and returned to our fried outlet. Then the ever-soothing words we, for some reason, hear from every professional we’ve hired to work on the house in a crisis: “I’ve never seen that before.” He summoned his coworker. “Look at this! Is it a GFI?”
“I think so? Yes. Nothing was flagged during inspection. Yes.”
The man in charge came back for a hurried and purposeful mission with the other two firefighters, but stopped on his way in to say, “You did the right thing.”
After more time inside they emerged again, with the never-seen-that-before commenter appearing wide-eyed.
“Did you have a lot of your breakers off?”
“A lot of your breakers are flipped. Like, most of them.”
The head firefighter left again as the other two further investigated the outlet and radioed PECO – they said they’d be there as soon as they could. When? At least an hour. No, about an hour, they conceded after the firefighter’s professional incredulity. This was at least a half an hour after I initially called PECO.
We were cleared to re-enter the house, but left the doors open for the firefighters to come and go several more times.
The firefighters assured us it was safe at this point, just smelly. They walked through all the houses with thermal cameras to ensure nothing was ignited behind the walls, and told us to ventilate. A humid ooze seeped in through the kitchen door that let the firefighters in, drawn through the house by our front storm door.
Before parting, the firemen told us PECO would likely tell us to get an independent electrician to assess the extent of the damage – “delays to normalcy!” my brain flashed – but should enter the house to check the breakers, disconnect and re-connect everything, and isolate the breaker for the charred outlet.
The kids and I ended up playing at a neighbor’s house unmasked for the first time in two years until dinner time. I remained stationed with my friend in her kitchen as she made bagels from scratch, with my iPhone 7 with unpredictable battery life plugged in in their kitchen as I texted my husband and other neighbors.
The full story emerged throughout the course of the day: a tree fell on the power lines, severing all wires. With the neutrals and hots cut free, they then whipped around, their raw edges repeatedly making contact and sending irregular pulses of electricity through our home.
PECO didn’t show up to repair the street lines until about an hour and a half after we called – and at least 45 minutes after the fire department called initially.
With the house labeled safe by our trusty local professional evaluators of danger, we decided to make every effort to stay that night if the electricity could be restored before the kids’ bedtime so they weren’t even more scared of the house.
Thankfully (and I do mean thankfully although earlier would have been nice – like I said, we really wanted to stay the night), PECO returned to restore power before dinnertime. An arrogant PECO serviceman lightheartedly joked as he approached the house, “We decided to leave your power off a while longer.” This was 8 hours after our house started smoking, and several phone calls to ensure their attention after conflicting commitments phone reps gave our neighbors, mind you.
“Nah man, I’m just kidding,” he relented, after letting it hang in the humid air too long. He purposefully approached our meter to re-attach it, with mannerisms that made it clear he wouldn’t be sticking around long, and would not be leaving the meter as part of his duties.
We mentioned the firefighters’ guidance to have him inspect the breaker and examine the outlet.
“Nope, we don’t do that. You need a private electrician.”
We glanced at each other as he actively ignored us. We remained silent in the finality of his demeanor for a moment before we continued to push for a closer look at the charred outlet.
“I can tell you right now without looking at it…” my anger at his arrogance blocked out his reply as he trailed off on a diatribe establishing his superiority in all things electrical. Thankfully, my husband took some electrical engineering courses and can spot bullshit in this area even more adeptly than my instincts. We insisted despite his resentment growing more visible in the increasing force he applied as he turned the final screws on the panel on the electric meter.
We showed him around the back of the house. His step halted and his demeanor changed when he saw the ashen flare around what was previously an outlet – though he tried to hide it.
He maintained the charade of his swagger just a little more quietly than before as he bent to inspect the damage, and he agreed to run through the breakers with us, isolate the breaker and wrap the wire ends so that we knew it was safe to stay with the power restored.
The worried voice of our seven year old, who appeared at the back door during this process, finally made him aware of the gravity of the day for us, and why we needed it to be safe and air conditioned now – not when a private electrician could find time to make it over. He softened as he shared he also has a seven year old, and assured the kids it would be safe.
Assessing the Damage
So, we stayed the night, and assessed the damage, discovering more shorted casualties throughout the house over the next few days:
- several light bulbs
- 3 LED retrofits in the kitchen we just put in a few months ago
- a burned surge protector in the basement
- the charred outlet
- the coffee maker
- a dehumidifier
- the garage door opener
- the heater control panel
- …and our oven. By far the biggest expense. Also, the week I needed to bake a birthday cake.
Several thousand dollars worth of damage and now it’s a few weeks later and we’re still not done getting the electrical in the house fortified for a next time that will hopefully never come.
We also discovered some outlets weren’t installed properly in the kitchen in the evaluation by the electrician. My husband took care of those.
But we’re all fine, thankfully. And that’s all that matters.
Why Won’t Power Companies Bury Power Lines?
Here’s where this matters for you: PECO (and likely your power company no matter where you are in the US), are not liable for damage to your home, even though the decision to keep the power lines above ground is theirs. It costs $1,000,000 per mile to bury power lines, compared to $100,000 to keep them raised. They’re not going to bury anyone’s existing power lines, no matter how many thousands of dollars of damage are incurred in a neighborhood because they’re not liable. That property damage and interruptions to daily life and work schedules, however significant to private homeowners, is not important to them, and they cannot be bothered.
Communication Upgrades & Other Necessary Improvements
Nothing like an emergency to kick you into high gear and stop stalling on updating phones. My husband’s problematic android phone dropped to zero charge during all of the commotion that day, and wouldn’t respond to chargers thereafter without a lot of trial and error. I had just recently switched back to my unreliable iPhone 7 after realizing I was missing texts from people on my android phone – whose invasive inquiries for more access to my life and information were growing more frequent lately. I was putting up with the 7’s erratic battery levels knowing we weren’t really doing much except hanging out at home until school started, and I could plug it in as needed (most of the time). I knew the new iPhones would be released soon so I could probably get a deal if we waited.
We ordered new phones immediately.
Thankfully, it was just a few weeks until the new iPhones came out so my husband was able to snag a phone for almost half off. We’ve been with our carrier for almost 10 years, but we don’t get any discounts whatsoever from them for loyalty anymore, of course, so we gave up on them and bought from Apple directly.
We’ve been getting quotes for a whole house surge suppressor and and seeing what else can be improved on our end to hopefully prevent damage to a similar extent in the future. Because those power lines aren’t going to be buried any time soon.
The next morning, I woke up. Tired, but I needed to get the house in shape for back-to-school in a few weeks. I was switching the load of laundry in the washer, now washed twice, to the dryer by 7AM. We got the kids up and as they headed downstairs I told them about my big plans for the day, which I knew would spill into the next week: Tidying up the laundry room, and working on our calendar wall to get organized!
Laundry zero? Someday.
P.S. Posting went the way it went with a sick kid home all week, but IG views are always (and by always, I mean in my month of dedicated instagramming I observed it) very low on stories on the weekend, so I may likely wait to post updates until Monday – at least the reveal shots.