advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Tire Inflators And DVD Players, Or, Should Utilities Be Buried?

So it’s been one of those winters, and if you’re reading this…

…you have Power.

There is a winter ritual involving snow shovels, kerosene, checking the “battery closet”, finding that missing glove, and all the other tasks that make losing current more bearable in our part of the world.

It appears many of you share this ritual, judging from what can be seen out there.

As our neighborhood frequently loses power, this is an ongoing process requiring frequent updates.

There’s a fair amount of effort involved, but also considerable familiarity with the “mitigation process”, if you will.

For example, it’s easy to cook meatloaf and cornbread in a Weber grill-fun, too.

Here’s a free bonus for you today: an unexpected tip for those of you out there in the dark for another night, dying for entertainment, looking for an alternative to hooking the TV to a $600 generator.

We shop Costco and Sam’s Club (equal opportunity shoppers), and recently purchased a $20 “cordless tire inflator”.  It’s basically a battery attached to a pump, with a hose, in an industrial-looking (ish) yellow housing.

Inputs: 120V and 12V for battery charging. Output for a 12V connection is provided. Been carrying it around in the car, just in case.

It only took about 3 hours of darkness before my personal light came on (“12V output!”), and the idea of using it to power the portable DVD player came to fruition about 7 seconds later.

The “inflator”, when fully charged, runs our player for a good “The Dirty Dozen”, “Kelly’s Heroes”, and “Patton” trifecta, with power left over. (I did not have the initiative to complete the “The Longest Day” quinella, should you wonder.)

Recognizing the potential for car recharging (they have that 12V input…), I raced back to Sam’s and bought 2 more. A $50 variant, with jumper cables instead of an air pump, is also available, but I just wanted the batteries.

So each day I’d load the batteries in the car’s 3 outlets, and each night, depending on how much I drove, I’d have from 30 to 50% of full charge time duration before voltage decreased below minimum for the player.

But that’s not to say losing power is all fun.

Having lost power for a week this year I can easily appreciate the situation across the Midwest and Northeast (visit the “Tulsa World” site, for example), and the difficulties farmers in other areas are facing as well.

Which brings me to power lines.

As usual, I like to consider the out-of-the-box question, so here’s one:

Should we be, to a much greater extent, burying the utility distribution system?

I quickly searched for some kind of omnibus estimate of the cost of America losing current in the winter, and there appears to be a lack of good data.

Such an estimate would, however, need to include much more than the obvious cost of restoring power distribution-there’s the supplemental costs of lost opportunity/productivity, not to mention the huge increase in D cell sales.

Did I mention liability, industrial generator rentals and home generator purchases, air pollution from wood burning…well, you get the idea.

Why D cells more than all the rest, by the way?

To answer this sort of question with wisdom, we need to at least get a handle on the cost of replacement, and the difference in burial or poles in new construction and long-term maintenance (tree-trimming…), but because of how difficult the costs of losing power are to quantify, the cost/benefit analysis will be challenging, indeed.

Nonetheless, I’m proposing we examine the wisdom of making such a change, perhaps starting with changing code for new construction, much as we have with sprinklers.

It should be noted that the electric customers most suffering, and least likely to benefit (or benefit last) from a proposal such as this are the rural customers in the world of 1 house per mile of wire.

Am I too out-of-the-box here, or might it be worth the money?


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