The Colonel’s Plan – Water, Water… From Where?

July 30, 2019

Dear Daddy—

I have spent the last 82 days writing and editing a single letter to you. By the time this sees print, it will have appeared, chopped up into six pieces. It was all about the history of your time as a victim of scams.

So, while I feel that I’ve spent the past six months—maybe even the past year—getting very little done, especially at your house, I guess it’s time to catch you up on a few things. To start with, Howard County has had two tornadoes—and more tornado warnings—since May.

The second one did not touch the Clarksville area at all, although my co-workers and I spent about half an hour sheltering in the basement of our office building in Marriottsville while it passed us.

The first one, however, caught us by surprise. It also seems to have passed right between your house and the Huffmans’—which have about two acres of ground between them. I was at work when it hit. Jess called me to say that we had “at least three” trees down in the driveway, and they had broken power lines. I headed there, not knowing what the extent of the damage would be—or rather had been. On the way, I sat waiting on Route 29 Southbound because of slow traffic—unusual in the afternoon. One of our ambulances came up behind me, so I assumed there was an accident. I thought I’d found it—a young lady in a Jeep Wrangler, which was sticking nose-first into the ground with its wheels against the bank. But the ambulance went on past her, so I assumed there was a more drastic situation ahead. She appeared to be unhurt, and was on her phone, presumably calling for help.

I never did find the other accident, so it was probably on a side-road. I did encounter quite a few downed trees and tree debris in the road. As I got nearer to your house, there were trees down everywhere. Neighbors on Simpson Road were already out with chainsaws. I called the tree company I’d used recently while I drove, but they said they’d hold off until BGE had visited.

When I got to your place, I couldn’t easily get to the house itself. There were, in fact, four trees down in the driveway. The high-tension power lines were on the ground, broken and coiled. One tree was blocking both the Huffmans’ driveway and ours, and had power lines tangled in its corpse; so I cut through the Huffmans’ pasture, noting that the horses were apparently shut up in the barn.

Power, Internet and phone were out, of course. The cables were all on the ground. I made sure the Huffmans, Mother and Jess were well. And then I realized I needed to call the electrician. You see, the week before, all the outlets along the kitchen counter had stopped working. I had gone to check the breaker and found that its lever just freely slid back and forth without a click. Well, it was 50 years old, I thought, and we’d recently put it into much heavier service. Little did I realize…

The electrician was so busy that he couldn’t come to see us for a week. (I think you would have been right behind the movement to encourage more Americans to train for skilled labor. We have a shortage of plumbers, electricians and other trades.) It just so happened that he had picked Thursday at 5:00, and now the house was inaccessible. But Stephan, the electrician, was game to climb fences and do the job anyway. So he said he’d be there soon, if a bit late because of traffic. Changing a breaker when the power was already off was a piece of cake.

So I went downstairs to make sure he had enough light to see the panel—those battery-powered LED lanterns you had bought in quantity turned out to be a big help, even if I did disapprove of your habit of buying all kinds of tools, “Just in case.”

But, when I went to move a couple of boxes out of the way of the electrical panel, I found a few gallons of water standing on the floor, apparently coming out from under a table full of equipment.

Now this basement has *never* leaked. You were too vigilant about parging the outside of a house’s foundation before it was backfilled, so our cinderblock walls were coated in asphalt and covered in tar paper below grade. It gets damp from humidity, but never wet. Further, there wasn’t a water pipe within ten feet of the puddle. By the time Stephan arrived, I was still soaking it up with towels and wringing them in the sink. I showed him to the panel, and he began changing out the breaker.

On one of my passes back and forth to the laundry tub, he said, “Uh, got a problem here… the panel’s wet.”

I came to see. Indeed, the bottom right set of breakers were glistening in the light and shed water when touched. The bottom of the box was rusted, which I couldn’t say was old or new, but Stephan said meant it had had water in it for a while. The strange thing was that we couldn’t find a source of water. The plywood behind the box was bone-dry and showed no water damage. The top and sides of the box were clean and dry. The cables coming out of the box showed no rust.

We finally decided that the water had run down the twin main cables coming from the meter above—running inside the jacket protecting the braid. I went upstairs and looked around. The meter was dry. There was a downspout terminating right next to the meter. Was that running into the house? But there was no water on the walls. And the big cable in the ground next to it was the supply line from the pole, buried underground as it ran to the house. The supply line into the brick wall was eight inches above ground. And, while you had wrapped it in plastic, it was not wet.

Finally, I looked at the meter housing. Around the glass bubble for the meter itself was a ring with a cross-section about a quarter of an inch wide—and it was open to the inside of the housing. Clearly, there was supposed to be a gasket there. I looked on BGE’s website and found that they owned and were responsible for the care of the meter box. So I called them and reported the issue. Then I wrapped the meter in 6 mil plastic and taped it off. Two months later, BGE has still not arrived to inspect the meter, but the panel has stopped leaking.

I learned in my research that this was very common for below-grade electrical panels. The meter housing leaks, water runs down the conduit, and the box gets a bath. Unsafe, but, at least now I know. It just makes me shudder to think that those gallons of water had come in with the tornado, run down the electric line, into the house, through the breakers, and finally onto the floor, where the water followed the slope toward the middle of the room.

More to Follow.



Follow-up: BGE never showed. With everything going on, it was almost a year before I called again and asked, “Are you ever coming?” This time they came immediately, but they told me that they don’t seal meters, even though meter maintenance is theirs contractually. The homeowner is responsible for making sure that their open-air meters don’t allow water into the cables that are connected to the bottom. So I engaged an electrician to replace the old, decaying line and seal the meter. Many heavy rainfalls later, the panel is dry, and I don’t have to keep sheet plastic taped over the meter housing.

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