Finally, a use for that Y2K generator
Jonathan Chevreau The National Post Saturday August 16, 2003

Blackout gave us a chance to dust off a $2,000 friend

When the lights went out in Toronto, it was like Y2K had finally arrived, albeit three and a half years late.

As the sunset gave way to clear starry skies Thursday night, I was inside our garden shed, trying to recall how to start the generator I had purchased in 1999.

I blush to admit I was one of those Y2K pessimists who figured there was a better than even chance the power grid would fail on Dec. 31, 1999. Unlike many who sheepishly decline to admit their extensive Y2K preparations, I had been all too public about it. I co-authored the book Krash!, since remaindered at fine book stores everywhere.

Stephen Gadsden and I speculated Y2K glitches could burst the then-inflated stock market balloon. In the buildup to it, I'd written several columns about Y2K's investment implications: overweight cash, bonds and gold.

After Y2K passed without a whimper, my brother-in-law the farmer offered to buy the generator. I declined on the basis it "might come in handy" some day.

And so it did on Thursday night. I hauled out the generator from its spot in the shed, eagerly anticipating vindication for our long-ago Y2K preparations.

We'd long since consumed the water and fire logs, but the bright red just-like-new $1,000 Coleman PowerMate Vantage 3500 generator continued to admonish me every time I entered the shed.

Generators use the same gas most homeowners have on hand for their lawnmowers or cars. They even start like lawnmowers, complete with pull-cord. But as my wife shone a flashlight on the yellowed instruction manual, I wasn't hopeful we'd remember how to get the device running.

After all, we'd only ever used it once, and then only to test the system we'd hired an electrician to wire in 1999. While it's possible to to use a generator on a standalone basis, you can't use it indoors unless you plan a quick exit from this world. It emits deadly carbon monoxide fumes, a point to keep in mind if you head to Canadian Tire or Home Depot this weekend to follow suit. Based on my inquiries to those stores Friday, you'll have plenty of competition.

To be practical, the generator needs to be outside and professionally connected to your house's electrical system. It's not something that can be done in a few hours and is definitely not a task for amateurs.

As 1999 progressed, demand for this type of electrical service was high so we booked early in the fall. For about $1,000, our electrician ran a cable from the shed underground into the basement and the house's main electrical panel. A breaker system allows you to switch between the public grid and "local" power sources.

As the light faded Thursday, we soon despaired of making sense of the generator's manual, a jumble of conflicting diagrams and instructions. We plunged straight in and flicked a few switches, adjusted the throttle and yanked the cord. To our surprise and relief, it came to life more readily than our lawn mower, belching fumes and making enough noise to disturb the neighbors. Walk around an affected neighborhood this weekend and that whirring sound you hear will be other Y2K generators come back to life.

With our machine now rumbling, we hooked it up to the four-pronged 20-amp cable running to the basement. Flashlights in hand, we descended the stairs. With trepidation, I tripped the breaker from the public grid to the generator. The moment of truth.

Lo and behold! Almost four years after the disaster for which we had prepared, everything worked like a charm. In the basement, the furnace fan came on, which meant the air conditioning could work again. Of course, the original idea was to have the furnace heat us in the deep freeze of Jan. 1, 2000.

On the main floor, the refrigerator was again humming and the microwave lit up. We didn't try it since we'd already cooked our dinner with the BBQ also purchased in 1999.

Upstairs to the home office, which we'd also wired into the emergency supply. Most home generators won't power everything in the average house but we'd made the office a priority. Therefore the computers worked, as did a reading light and the small television in the office. Cable TV was down so all we could receive was fuzzy local CBC and CTV signals.

High-speed Internet was down but across town a friend of mine who posts on the Internet as Bylo Selhi [www.bylo.org] reported he was posting by candlelight with a battery operated laptop using dial-up access on the still functioning telephone system.

Despite all this, we kept the generator running only 10 minutes. We had enough fuel to last several hours but with so many gas stations down decided to conserve fuel in case the blackout went on a second day. The radio was reporting food wouldn't spoil in freezers for the first 12 hours of the blackout so we opted for conservation.

As it happened, the power in our neighborhood was restored about 4 a.m. and the PowerMate's moment of glory in disaster relief had passed.

Given the $2,000 we'd spent on it, that works out to about $200 a minute just to lord it over the powerless for a few moments.

Despite the rosy glow we felt from our brief taste of electricity that memorable evening, most of it was like that experienced by other Torontonians. I listened to a battery-operated radio and watched the stars, in rapt contemplation not of the universe but my Y2K folly.

 

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