High Desert Hoofbeats: Nov. 14, 2019

Those of us who live with modern conveniences (most of us) often find ourselves at the mercy of utility companies.

A notable case in point has been felt by residents of Northern California this fall, as the Pacific Gas & Electric company has been intermittently shutting off their lines during recent hot, dry and windy conditions. To reduce the risks of massive fires, the utility has left people in the dark, which has created other risks to lives.

Here at home, it’s not often that Rocky Mountain Power intentionally turns the power off, but it does go out on a fairly frequent basis. Those of us who live in the greater Castle Valley/Professor Valley area are near the end of the line in the power grid that serves us. The quality of our power service is less than average. So we keep candles, matches and flashlights handy as a matter of practice, along with old-fashioned telephones with cords. Thank goodness the landline phones still work when the power doesn’t.

The last time the lights went out late in the evening on Aug. 28, I reached for a corner cabinet that holds an assortment of jar candles, while simultaneously grabbing an igniter. Within just a few minutes, my house was softly illuminated and smelling like a mixture of vanilla, cinnamon, Christmas trees and pumpkin pie. When the lights flickered on after a while and the refrigerator resumed its hum, we thought all was well. But as the power in our bulbs sputtered, browned and sometimes glowed very brightly, we heard a loud bang on the roof that was rough enough to knock a picture off the wall.

The television came on but went out again. My husband and I puzzled at what had happened, and within minutes discovered that the power strip in which we plugged the TV and DVD player was fried. A circuit breaker was tripped, which we flipped back on, and we found a new power strip to replace the broken one. Shortly later we were watching the nightly news again on TV. It was too dark to see what might have happened on the roof.

The next morning, we went outside to take a look, but nothing seemed awry. However, a week later, the technician who monitors our solar-generating system reported some panels that weren’t functioning. He came out to the house, climbed onto the roof and found extensive damage, which he and his subcontractors attributed to a power surge following the outage.

At this point, we are in discussions with Rocky Mountain Power to ascertain their liability regarding the matter. We’ve documented the time, place and damage, (more than $4,000) and we hope the utility company will reimburse us for repairs. Our damage claim has so far gone unanswered.

Sketchy power hasn’t been our only annoyance in terms of utilities this year. Last spring, there were several weeks when our land-based telephones didn’t work. Intended improvements by Frontier resulted in some snafus that all of us who live upriver felt. Legal complaints are pending, filed by Sorrel River Ranch and other parties who weren’t able to adequately communicate with the outer world. Without operational phones, businesses lost business, their staff and guests were inconvenienced, and there was a heightened measure of risk in terms of 911 communications. We are still waiting for answers and possible reparations in terms of that deal.

We rely on landlines here. Our cell service is pretty sketchy, 25 miles from town and towers. But luckily, during the prolonged period when my landline didn’t work, our cell phones provided a little bit of a backup. You know what I mean if you’re familiar with cell phones. If you’re out in the boonies, you’ve got to scramble to a high hill or try to get a line of sight to the mountains to hope for a conversation that doesn’t lose every third word.

Frontier has made some amends for the problems, but issues linger. Just Monday morning neither of my landlines would dial out. So I gave up using them, grabbed my cell phone, and stood on the kitchen table to make a sustainable call on it.

This vulnerability with regard to utilities reminds me to call the propane company soon and get our tank topped off. Although the days are warm right now, winter is just around the corner. My two propane fireplaces and gas stove can give us warmth if the power is out for long. Last year, during what turned out to be a banner season for storms, some of us ran out of propane and had to wait a while to get our tanks filled.

The company that delivers it was doing the best they could to answer an avalanche of calls during a time when avalanches of snow were coming down in the La Sals. We didn’t prepare for that hard of a winter. Many of us were burning through our propane faster than we ever had in the past.

Utilities make our lives easier, for sure. When they don’t work, we’re often unprepared and annoyed. With that in mind, I’ll get my tanks full, stock up on matches, candles, and bottled water (because our well pump doesn’t work when there’s no electricity), and we will hunker down, hoping there won’t be a surge when the lights come back on.