Science teachers: Want a case study for your next class? Use my house.
It all started on Valentine’s Day, when my 5-year-old niece, Lily, visiting with her parents from Alaska, came into the laundry room and told her mom, Laurie, she “was scared of the fire.”
Turns out, there was ample cause, with the emphasis on “amp.”
When Laurie came out to the living room, sparks were flying, and not from the Valentine’s affection of her husband, Nino. They were arcing out the back of our freestanding gas stove, without rhyme or reason. Prudently turning the gas off, she then called us.
Poking our heads around the stove’s back, Nino and I, too, were startled by the rockets’ red glare. Our first thought: unplug it. But there was no plug; it’s a gas stove with no electrical component. While we knew this, we double-checked anyway before calling the stove guy.
“It can’t be sparking,” he said. “It only has a tiny battery for the igniter.”
“Well, it is,” I replied, both of us dumbfounded.
As Murphy would have it, we had even more guests arriving that night. Even my construction pal Bob, who I waved in from outside, was perplexed.
The only thing the stove guy could offer was that maybe a wire was shorting out on the stovepipe or gas line. So we crawled around in the attic’s insulation and basement cobwebs, to no avail.
Reasoning it was now a job for an electrician, we began the next round of calls. First Don, then Geoff, then Campo, all out of town on the Front Range. Then two more messages elsewhere. Don’t sparkies work on Fridays anymore? Finally, I hit pay dirt with White Out Electric, which happened to be in the neighborhood.
“It’s sparking?” they echoed.
My own electrical synapses fired when I walked onto our porch and noticed the house’s wires hanging lower than usual. Sizzling sheet metal, I thought, maybe the entire roof was hot!
Sure enough, looking closer we could see that this year’s epic snowfall had aided in bending our steel electrical mast a whopping 90 degrees, all hidden by the white overhang still clinging to our roof. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who to call next: Yampa Valley Electric Association. Get someone over here, I said, before we start barbecuing birds.
The sparkies arrived like the cavalry, marching inside to the spark-throwing culprit. Benign-looking at first, it then sparked like something out of “Poltergeist” as soon as they neared, giving even the pros pause. They then watched their voltmeter swing up to 120V when they held it to the stovepipe.
One of the house’s two 120V wires somehow had turned our metal roof into a giant conductor. Taking the path of least resistance, the virus-like voltage then shot across the roof to our 4-inch stovepipe, which it zipped down like a super-charged Santa. There, like running into General Patton’s troops, it was stymied by a lone ceramic washer on the stove, designed to prevent heat from radiating up the pipe. All it could do now was hang out like snowboarders at a bar, looking for any sort of opening. The arcs — perhaps toward the metal runners of our nearby antique sled — were its vain attempt to reach ground.
On the bright side, Bob said, at least it was all bypassing our meter. “Too bad we can’t tap into it,” he professed. “That’s free power.”
After YVEA shut it down, we got to work ridding the roof of an avalanche of snow with three 10-foot raft oars before turning over things to the still-incredulous pros. Soon, the current was back where it belonged.
No sooner did YVEA flip on the switch again than the doorbell (yes, electric) rang from our guests, one of whom was a design engineer and was as amazed as everyone else.
It was then that I learned a lot about electricity that I had forgotten since school. One, it’s insidious and, like a teen, has a mind of its own. Two, power (watts) equals current (40 amps) times volts (120V), meaning we had nearly 4.8KW bee-lining across our roof, enough to roast any robin (arc welders, he added, often start with 3KW).
He also explained that if wearing shoes and standing on our carpet, we likely wouldn’t have gotten shocked. But it would have been zapsville had we touched it standing barefoot on the stove tiles.
“The stove company is going to be proud of the design, even though that’s not what it was intended for,” he added. “You don’t design a stove to handle your roof becoming electrified.”
Had the high-amp urchins somehow bypassed Patton’s
washer, they would have charged the stove and followed the gas pipe into the ground. Touch it then, and we’d have likely felt a “little ting,” he said, the hooligans already happy with their existing ground source.
But it was a frightening reminder nonetheless of what can happen when a snowball has a chance in hell. Replies were the same from all the electricians I talked to afterward, ranging from “you’re kidding” to “it what?” Yet, throughout the mishaps of the mischievous electrons, it was Lily who proved the smartest one of us all.