please: use standard connectors on emergency equipment
Wednesday, August 31 2011
I'd had the impression that the 240 volt connector on the generator contained some special mechanism that prevented access to its power without a properly shaped plug. But then I'd discovered that I could get 240 volts by using the hot wires of two of the 120 volt plugs that happened to be 180 degrees out of phase with each other. So I rigged up a box with two 120 volt cords coming out of it that would allow me to to send 240 volts down a conventional extension cord to the boiler room, where I could hook up to the well's terminals in the circuit breaker box. Unfortunately, though, this system was impossible because the 120 volt outlets I was tapping into were Ground Fault Interruptor outlets, which trip when the current going out through the hot wire is not matched by current coming in through the neutral. To get to 240 volts, such current had to be coming in through the other out-of-phase hot wire.
But then I realized I'd been misusing my multimeter to test where the voltages were. I have several multimeters and they're all different, and it's easy to flip to a setting from one to use on another and have it not be right. In this case I was trying to measure AC voltages in the DC settings. Once I'd corrected this problem, I found I could easily tap 240 volts from the 240 connector just by stuffing wires into the holes. Using this technique, eventually I was able to get the well to turn on and repressurize the household water system.
The fact that the 240 volt connector on the generator had been so nonstandard as to be unavailable in conventional hardware stores sheds light on yet another downside of proprietary (or otherwise unusual connectors): dangerousness. Here I was in the aftermath of a hurricane just trying to get my pump working. I wasn't desperate to do so, but I might well have been. I had a generator but no way to reliably attach that generator to my household electrical system. What to do? What would any desperate person do? If they were smart or foolish enough, they would improvise, which in my case meant stripping the ends off of ten gauge Romex cable, pounding them flat on an anvil, and sticking them into the holes in the 240 volt connector on the generator. This made for a somewhat unreliable connection, especially given the way the generator vibrates when it's in use, and there was even a danger a wire might slip out and electrocute someone foolish enough to touch it. But if I wanted running water, I had no choice. The part I needed was absolutely unavailable. The moral of the story is as follows: emergency equipment should always be equipped with the most standard, commonly-available interfaces.
Not that our condition is grave, but every day since the hurricane, our routine has been altered and supplemented by the routines of disaster survival, whether it be washing dishes by rainwater in the yard, swapping car batteries between a makeshift computer workstation and the generator, grinding coffee with a mortar and pestal, or igniting a gas burner on the stove with a lighter. The day is full of effortless improvisations. If I need an extension cord, the thought is not (as it might have been) that some extension cord has a proper home and I should look for another. No, I just use that extension cord. If some random piece of hose is appropriate for catching and rerouting a leak, I don't stop to wonder whether I should cut it to the size needed. No, I just cut it to the size needed and deploy it. In disaster survival, it's never about the future, about holding on to something so it might be used for some day for some better use. It's all about things being made to work now.
While we were down in Maryland recently, Gretchen had received a small kerosene lantern that had been handed down through her family. It would have been good to use that lantern in the recent power outage, but it turned out that its ceramic fuel reservoir had tiny prinprick leaks through which the pink-colored kerosene could wick its way out to the surface and turn the ceramic pink. It had seemed like a shame to throw the whole thing away, so I'd tested various bottles and threaded pipes until I found one that would accept the brass wick-holder and hurricane clip. It turned out that it mated perfectly with one inch NPT thread. So yesterday I'd bought some iron fittings with which to make a new fuel reservoir. This evening I used pipe wrenches and teflon thread tape to assemble the reservoir into a unit. Since the whole thing was sitting on a little one-inch square (the nut to turn the 1.5 inch plug that formed the reservoir's bottom), I had to make a better base. At first I thought I'd just make the base out of wood, but then I realized I could use a screwdriver-tightenable pipe clamp to attach four little legs made from aluminum roofing nails, making the lamp look like a steampunk lunar lander. See for yourself:
This evening Gretchen and I went to the mall and had a few drinks and veggie burgers at that bar there named Rolling Rock. As we had last week, we sat at the bar and the same bartender waited on us. He even remembered that I like Samuel Smith's Nutbrown Ale. For her part, Gretchen ordered an enormous 22 ounce Rolling Rock. Nobody else at the bar was drinking such a big beer, but she'd had a long tiring day and she needed a working man's beer.
We both ordered veggie burgers, which were just as good as the one I'd had last week. Gretchen asked the bartender if they'd changed their buns and he said they had, about two months ago.
Not that it was particularly interesting, I found myself watching the baseball game playing on the nearby flatscreen. It was Yankees versus Redsox, and this was definitely a Yankees bar.
I ended up drinking that Sam Smith followed by a Stella Artois followed by a Jack on the Rocks. I'm not the kind of guy who makes things predictable for a bartender (unless that bartender stocks a quality IPA).
After we had our drank on, we went to the nearby multiplex and watched Our Idiot Brother, a comedy about an underachieving, well-meaning hippie dude and his three more conventional sisters. As summer movies go it was okay, but I didn't love it. It was funny in parts, but it was obviously not intended as a laugh fest. Part of my problem was my mild case of prosopagnosia (face blindness), which made it difficult for me to distinguish the three sisters (all of them thin brunettes) until half way into the movie.
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