Friday, January 23, 2009
Chainsaw + Powerline = BAD
Ok, so... the "chainsaw" incident, or why I am offline again. Well, I am actually back online now, but I was offline for several days. Way offline, like off the grid, as they say. And... it was all my fault, sorta'. This whole thing really all started when I was having my house reshingled. It was time, really. The old shingles were way past their lifetime and a few were missing from past hurricanes. I called the person that had done the sub-work on my remodel two years ago. His son, Shaun, had started a roofing business and I knew he would do good work. I picked out the shingles and my wife, Cheryl, picked out the color. Soon, Shaun and his crew were busily pulling off the old shingles and working hard.
On one of my many trips up to the roof to check on progress, Shaun showed me an area where they had found subterranean termites under the felt. There wasn't much damage and he had replaced the decking just to be safe. That part of the roof had a large tropical tree (Schefflera) growing right at the corner of the foundation. This was keeping that part of the roof constantly shaded. It was also the route the termites had used to reach the roof. It was time for the tree to go. In addition to the termites, it was also growing up under the foundation and was likely to cause damage soon.
Now, I live in Florida, a subtropical climate. Bugs are just a fact of life. I've even convinced a guildie who lives in Canada that cockroaches are rampant here. Herds of them roam the streets, children often ride upon their backs, and many (far too many) even conduct successful runs for public office.
But we have more than just roaches, we have all kinds of bugs including a wide range of termites; drywood, subterranean, formosan... the list seems endless. Soon after we first moved into this house we discovered we had drywood termites. This was made abundantly clear when huge swarms of winged flyers suddenly appeared within the house one evening, getting into everything and flitting about the lights. I am using both "huge" and "swarm" correctly here, you couldn't breathe without inhaling half a dozen!
I should point out that prior to purchasing the home, we were required by the lender to get a termite inspection, which we did and were declared "termite free". When I called the inspector about this, he explained that was just a formality and that he was not responsible for actually finding any termites that may, or may not, be there. It was all part of the "Termite Inspector Relief Act" which was intended to help generate revenue for his industry and not for the protection of home buyers/lenders. I, not the inspector, was on the hook for treating the house for drywood termites. This treatment consists of erecting a huge tent over the house and pumping it full of a highly toxic gas for two days, which may (or may not) result in complete destruction of any furnishings within the home, but is guaranteed to kill anything living within the confines of the tent, including termites. I can attest that this treatment does work. Everything within the house was dead, including a family of fruit rats that had made a home in the attic. That's another story, but I can say that the treatment just kills things, it doesn't preserve them in any way.
Flash forward to two years ago, when I came home to find an oak tree in the front yard had fallen over! To make matters worse, the tree had fallen on the powerline to the house, snapping the riser pole and electric meter completely off. I attributed the ongoing electrical activity in that general location to the complete lack of power within the house. I called the power company, they came out, cut the power and wished me luck. I called an electrician who, being a fairly bright fellow, quickly isolated the problem to the fallen riser and electric meter. He could do the work the next day, but I had to get a permit from the County, who would then inspect his work before the power company would reconnect the lines. Permits are expensive, risers and electric meters are expensive, but the worst part was the two day wait for the County inspector to approve the installation so the power could be turned on. No power for three days. In August. In Florida. We have a small generator which ran the refrigerator and freezers, as well as a couple of lamps, but not the AC. Ugghhh... that was pretty miserable.
Oh yeah, back to the fallen tree. I called a tree guy to come take it away and he found that the tree had contracted a fungus, which I suppose is kinda' like a bug. That fungus had allowed termites to get into the root system, which was why the tree had fallen over. Sorta' like if a wild band of roving weasels suddenly appeared and chewed off your feet, you would fall over. He also pointed out that three adjacent oak trees also had this fungus and I should consider removing them as well. I was suspicious (ala the "Termite Inspector Relief Act") and just had the fallen tree removed.
About a year later my wife and I were watching TV one evening when we heard a loud crash, then an explosion, followed by a complete loss of power to the house. We noticed this because the TV went off and the dogs ran to hide under the bed. I cautiously ventured outside to find an oak tree (one of the ones previously identified with the fungus) had snapped off about 12 feet up the trunk. The top, looking all the world like a huge broccoli stalk, had landed on the power line and then smooshed our little pop-up camper parked beneath it.
The riser was ripped off the house again, but the meter remained on the house even though it was kinda' burned and melted... and still smoking. The power company, bless their little hearts, came right out, cut the lines and wished me luck. This was looking awfully familiar, like... deja vu all over again. I found out that permit fees, risers and meters had gone up a lot in price, but the County would still take two days to do their inspection. No power for three days. In August. In Florida. Again.
Which brings me to today. Now that Schefflera tree, while tall, wasn't really that big. I could remove most of it myself and save some money, or at least that was my plan. Over a period of several days, I slowly made my way through its many trunks. Unlike a normal tree, this thing didn't have branches... it had trunks. Lots and lots of trunks. I would bring one down, de-leaf it, bag the leaves and cut up the trunk with my trusty chainsaw. Last saturday, I had worked my way down to the last remaining trunk. The largest one, incidentally, which had a wicked lean over the power line. I knew this would be a challenge, but I had developed a plan. My ingenious plot involved a rope, a truck and my wife. I would use a ladder to tie the rope as high up the tree as I could reach, tie the other end to the trailer hitch on the truck and then have my wife drive the truck to pull the tree away from the power line as I heroically cut through that last trunk. It was perfect! It was foolproof! It was... well, maybe not "perfect", exactly.
As I busied myself with the ladder, rope and truck, my wife cast a baleful look at the contraption I had created. Bah, she never believes in my creations. She looked at me and said, "I think we should hire someone to do this". Hmmm, a non-believer. Given the look on her face, I knew she would never agree to participate and drive the truck, so I decided I would just pull the truck forward, tension the rope as much as possible and put it in park. That should generate more than enough force to successfully pull the fallen tree away from the power line where it would fall safely into the front yard. The rope was long enough that the truck wouldn't get hit, so I was good to go!
Now, I should have recognized that this was not the same plan I had so carefully prepared over the past three days. But I convinced myself that this was just a minor modification - my plan was still perfectly feasible. We engineers like to use the word "feasible", it makes us sound confidant while we are actually expressing some doubt. I started the chainsaw and my wife looked at me with one eyebrow raised and took a few steps back. I cut a nice v-notch in the back side of the trunk, the side I wanted the tree to fall on. You know... away from the power line. Then I commenced making the falling cut on the other side. I lined up perfectly with the center of the v-notch, a nice straight cut through and the tree suddenly sprang towards the truck just as I had envisioned it.
At this point, I found myself in a flashback to my childhood watching Wile E. Coyote attempt to capture Road Runner. I mean, really, the only thing missing was a big fat "ACME" stamped on the side of the chainsaw. You see, if I am behind you and give your big, fat head a hard shove, your whole body will fall away from me. Hah - just like I planned! However, if I shove you behind the knees, your knees will go away from me, but the rest of you will fall right on top of me, which is not exactly what I had planned. And the rope that I had tied around the tree was basically about, oh say... knee level, for the tree at least.
So, as I watched the freshly cut trunk spring away from me and towards the planned landing zone, I couldn't help but notice that the top of the tree had apparently not gotten the memo. It was moving a lot slower than the trunk, possibly due to the air resistance of all those huge leaves. We engineers notice and analyze things like that, it's just part of our nature. And, as an engineer, I quickly determined that the top was also moving in exactly the wrong direction. I could bore you with all the esoteric equations and formulae related to gravitational acceleration, fluid dynamic analyis of the airflow through and around the leaves, dynamic moments, and so forth, but instead will simply present a brief synopsis of the results from my analyses:
1) Things are not going according to plan
2) It is not going to fall on Cheryl
3) It is not going to fall on me
4) It is going to fall on the power line
I can only assume a sudden burst of adrenaline had provided my brain with all the horsepower it needed to complete a detailed assessment of the movement of that tree. However, after I finalized result number 4, all adrenaline was depleted leaving my mind unable to process further information. Therefore, I could not complete a full assessment of the resulting stress on the power line and its attachment point to the house before the answer was presented to me in excruciating and gorey detail. The riser was once again laying on the ground, but the meter box, while slightly dented, remained attached to the house. There were no sparks, smoke, flames, explosions or any other signs that something was amiss aside from the incorrect placement of the riser. I cautiously approached the meter to find it still spinning happily away, counting all those kilowatts being consumed by the household appliances. We still had power!
I turned to look at my wife, only to find her with that same damn eyebrow still raised. I smiled at her, turned off the chainsaw and said, "That's enough home improvement for today."
I waited until Monday to call the power company, since I knew exactly what they would do. No point in going the whole weekend without power. After I called, they came out promptly, told me I was having nothing but trouble with that power line (news flash, thanks), cut the lines and wished me luck. I called the electrician, who wondered aloud if he had been here before. Seems like others were sharing in my deja vu this time. I answered yes, and asked if he had some kind of bulk discount, or frequent shopper program. He just smiled. I found out that permit fees, risers and meters had gone up a lot in price (again), and the County would still take two days to do their inspection. No power for three days. This time in January, with a cold front approaching. No heat and cold showers for three days.
The power is back on now. Cheryl still isn't speaking to me, but she has gleefully related her version of events to anyone who will listen. I think I hear her on the phone even now, snickering and giggling. I've received a few heckling phone calls, so I just let the machine pick up for now.