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Repeated power failures costly to businesses

Staff writer

When Wagon Wheel Express’s electricity went out along with power to most of downtown Friday afternoon, owner Sherry Hess lost more than lights. She lost half a day’s business.

“You’ve prepped dinner salads and have made suppers or special things,” she said. “I don’t do leftovers, so you lose that.”

Hess had to close for the rest of the day because all appliances were shut down and would have had to be brought back in service once power was restored. Brown-out conditions didn’t help. When the electricity was running at half power, Hess shut down her appliances because otherwise they could be damaged.

It was the city’s fifth outage in 2½ months — some caused by weather, and others by installation issues.

Previous failures at the city’s substation behind the county’s waste transfer station have been linked to not using waterproof cable when electrical wires there became submerged in a deluge.

Losing power makes it difficult to pay employees because nothing is being sold, Hess said.

“I feel sorry saying I can’t pay my employees because we’re not open,” she said. “It’s a ripple-down effect.”

Wagon Wheel lost an air conditioner, which will prevent Hess from opening the dining room as planned this week.

“It’s not like I’m mad at the city workers,” she said. “I know they hustle around and do the best they can.”

Most of the north valley and a portion of the north hill lost power Friday afternoon because of a bad connection at the city’s substation behind.

An aluminum crimp fitting that held wires together became loose, causing heat to build up between lines, city administrator Roger Holter said.

“It was a hot day where people were getting home and turning on air conditioners,” he said. “The load picked up, and it just was enough electricity going through that line that it caused the fitting to heat up and separate.”

It was originally speculated that the brownout was caused by a small grass fire below the substation, but the fire actually was caused when the fitting began to melt and fell into some weeds, Holter said.

The fire could have been worse, though, and it was fortunate that the incident was simple to take care of, Marion fire chief Preston Williams said.

“It’s a pretty new pole so it didn’t just catch fire and burn up,” he said. “Luckily it wasn’t much of anything.”

Marion firefighters had trouble getting there because the fire station was among the buildings to lose power and its doors wouldn’t open until its generators could be started up.

City employees were able to put out the fire with extinguishers before firefighters arrived.

The fact that the latest failure was related to heat further worries Hess.

“It’s only June,” she said. “I have all summer to go.”

The outage lasted 38 minutes until a new fitting could be put on the lines.

Holter apologized for any inconvenience to businesses or residents.

Marion runs two voltages, and the lower voltage has five circuits, one of which was affected Friday.

Marion City Building had to switch to generators because its power was included on the circuit that stopped. The city also received calls from Elm and Locust St. residents and multiple businesses downtown with low power or none at all.

Holter, public works supervisor Marty Frederickson, and an electric department employee each drove a section of town trying to find where the problem originated.

“We knew which circuit to go to,” he said. “It stretches clear across the river bank where we just did repairs and it goes up that hill, so we all took a section.”

Preventing a similar problem moving forward will be difficult since there isn’t much to correct, Holter said.

“This was literally a $3 part that failed,” he said. “It’s just a wire connector. There isn’t any preventative maintenance that can be done on them. They’re either good or they’re bad.”

One way to help the problem might be sending automatic text alerts or phone calls when power goes out or is reconnected, Hess said.

“Our fear is that it would happen on a Saturday and we don’t even know the power’s out,” she said. “They don’t give me a courtesy call and say, ‘Gee, Sherry you have a café here in town, we want you to know you don’t have power.’ If I’m out of town I don’t even know the power is out.”

Marion has a system called Code Red that can send alerts, but people have to sign up for the service, Holter said.

Exploring use of the system for power outages might work, but the city would want to avoid sending blanket messages that could cause further confusion, Holter said.

Last modified June 10, 2020

 

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