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Nine hours of "planned" power outage. Sometimes, life just throws one at you..

Mon Oct 29, 2007 - 9:54 AM EDT - By Harv Laser


It's one thing to write reviews about emergency charging solutions for Treos. One can sit back and evaluate a product objectively. It's quite another thing to actually spend the better part of a week day and NEED to use those emergency charging solutions.

The story you are about to read is true. Not even the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The dreaded postcard of doom

It all began when that postcard (click the picture to enlarge it so you can read it) arrived in the mail in mid-October, 2007. Have you ever gotten one of those? If not, get down on your hands and knees and kiss the almighty gods of electricity.

As you can see, SCE (Southern Calif. Edison), the utility that provides most of So. Calif. with AC wall power, decided they needed to do some repair work in my neighborhood. I was one of a lucky hundred or so residents on my block who got that card about a week before the "planned outage." As you can see, it didn't spell out any details about what Edison had to fix or replace that COULD take up to nine hours to do, but during that time, they were going to shut off the juice to everyone in my apartment building, and residences on either side of it.

Maybe you live in a part of the US where you have bitter Winter ice storms, and have had to deal with no AC power for days on end. It's not all that uncommon in the Mid-West. Maybe some drunken idiot driving on rain-slicked streets has slammed into and knocked over a utility pole near your home, or local tree-climbing wildlife chewed through an electrical wire, or a tree branch broke off during a wind storm and knocked one down. Whatever the reason, whatever time of day it happened, you found yourself sitting or lying in the dark for a while after you heard a transformer explode. It's happened where I live quite a few times in the past few years, but the longest home power outage I ever suffered through lasted no more than an hour or two.

Something apparently happened here a couple months ago, when a short, but furious storm blew through, the loud sound of a transformer blowing out echoed through the neighborhood, and, as this was in the middle of the night, I found myself in bed, in total darkness, groping for a flashlight and some candles, and my trusty Treo to report the blackout to Edison. Apparently that brief outage damaged a transformer, so Edison felt it necessary to schedule a PLANNED outage to replace that temporarily-patched unit and its ancillary hardware, so my fellow apartment dwellers and surrounding neighbors all received that card in the mail. I almost threw it out, thinking it was junk mail. Good thing I didn't.

I read it. And read it again. I knew it was coming. It was about a week off. I decided to call SCE to find out if they were REALLY going to need nine hours to make this repair. As I worked my way up the customer service food chain, NO ONE could tell me for certain how long it would take, but the outage was scheduled to last "up to" nine hours, from 9am to 6pm. "The power might come on and go off again, Sir, the outage might be shorter, the chances of it going on longer than nine hours are slim but possible. But we're doing this to provide you with excellent service blah blah etc. etc."

I had about a week to prepare myself for this day of aggravation.

Let's see.. my laptop's battery is supposed to be good for about four hours. My cable modem and router are connected to wall current through a Belkin UPS whose battery I had recently replaced.

All I could do was hope that Edison could get this job done in fewer than nine hours, and although I'd have no lights, no fans, no air conditioning, no TV, and I'd have to keep the refrigerator's doors closed so my cold and frozen food wouldn't turn to poison, the whole experience shouldn't be all that bad.. let's just hope it's not a hot day.

Comes the morning..

I awaken extra early, do my business, and go online for my morning email / news / weather / eBay rituals. Hmm.. 6am.. three hours to get ready for it.

I make sure I have a whole mess of NiMH AA batteries charged up. Why? Well, if this planned outage really DOES drag on for nine full hours, and my laptop battery conks out, and my UPS battery conks out, unless I want to spend the day churning butter, the only form of 21st century technology I'm gonna have that will work at all are my two Treo 700ps. I'll have to rely on them and ONLY on them for phone calls, email, Web browsing, and anything else that involves voice or data communication of any kind.. and I have ONE emergency charger, a BoxWave battery box that takes four AAs. However, I remembered that when I reviewed it and tried regular Alkaline AAs in it, they wouldn't properly charge a Treo.

BoxWave had told me that Treos are VERY sensitive to proper voltage input, and that a quartet of throwaway Alkalines put out half a volt too much, and weren't recommended for their box. NiMH batteries, however, supplied exactly the right voltage. Back when I reviewed that box, I confirmed it. So I better put a full charge on every spare Treo battery I have, and every NiMH AA I have within reach, should this outage truly last all day. I was gonna need the juice.

Oh wait a minute, I also have that Medis Fuel Cell Charger I reviewed a couple months ago. Hey, if worse comes to worse, I can fall back to that to keep the Treos charged.

Sure, I could run back and forth to my car, and use DC charging cables, but what a hassle that'd be, and I wanted to avoid it.

I gathered up a dozen re-chargeable AAs and plop them four at a time into my AC charger, constantly keeping an eye on the clock, waiting to see if Edison is true to their word and they pull the proverbial plug at 9am. As long as my Treo's charging cradles have juice, I run both phones' batteries up to 100%, swap in spare batteries and charge them up too.

The postcard didn't lie..

My laptop's clock ticked over to 9am. Nothing happened. Hmm, did the planned outage get postponed? I reach for the Treo to call Edison and find out. No sooner do I wind my way through their endless voice mail tree ("Please listen carefully, as our options have changed".. have you EVER called a company with a voice mail system that DIDN'T say that?).. then, suddenly..

Exactly at 9:03am, it's happy fun blackout time!..

My AC power goes out. My laptop switches over to its battery. My UPS starts beeping at me. All my lights go out, the TV goes off, VCR off, refrigerator off, fans off, air conditioner off.. thank God the weather report said it'd only be in the low 70s that day. I open the living room curtains and sit here in utter silence, broken only by the occasional whirr of the laptop's fan and hard drive, two things I normally NEVER hear.

I call Edison to find out if this outage is really going to last all day. I get a recording: "Please enter your planned six digit planned outage number.." {{tap tap}}.. "You entered xxxxxx. If that's correct, press "1." I press "1.".. the robotic female voice tells me exactly the same thing the postcard said. Lovely.

I tap and touch-tone and wind my way to a human being. "Is this outage REALLY going to last for nine hours?" "I'm not a technician, sir. We are doing necessary repairs to provide you with excellent service. We apologize for any inconvenience," she as, as if reading off a script, which I have no doubt she was doing.

Okay, so now what.. well, I'm almost out of food, so I close the laptop to save its battery, and head for the supermarket. I risk buying some cold and frozen items, hoping above hope that if I quickly toss them in the fridge, and don't open its door too many times, they'll stay cold or frozen.

Open the laptop and wake it up.. down to 70% battery. The UPS, beeping every few seconds to remind me it's running off its battery (yes, thank you, I know that, shut up already!) is still doing its thing. So I do a little more work online, and sit in eerie silence, wondering what to do next.

I go into my back bedroom, pull the curtain aside, and see a couple of Edison guys in helmets, up in the bucket of a "cherry picker" truck, futzing around with that oil-filled transformer and its ceramic insulators atop a forty foot high utility pole. Ahha! So that's what they're going to replace. I'm tempted to yell out the window "Hey guys, how long is this gonna take!?" but I figure they won't hear me anyway..

Back to the living room, and thanks to the ambient silence, I can hear their hydraulic cherry picker going up and down and up and down.. I go back to the bedroom and see they've taken the entire "T" shaped top off the utility pole!.. hmm.. this is not encouraging.

After a couple of hours of this, my laptop battery's down to 50%, the UPS is still beeping, so I called Edison again. The "planned outage" recording has not changed. 9am to 6pm. "Please call back, as this information will be updated throughout the day." Uh-huh.. and I'm Mother Goose.

I walk outside and find some neighbors chatting with the building Manager. Apparently some of them either didn't get the "planned outage" postcard, or thought it was junk mail and threw it away.

Another hour passes and now it's early afternoon. The laptop's been running off its battery for almost four hours and is down to about 30%. The UPS is still beeping. What to do.. what to do.. call Edison again, no change.

Through all of this, since I was making a lot of phone calls, and entertaining myself as best I could with Kinoma Player 4 EX , and since streaming radio stations and videos puts a very heavy load on a Treo's battery, it's time to plug in that BoxWave battery box and top them off. How many full re-charges can I get off a fresh set of AAs?.. Well it turns out, about two. Good thing I charged up a dozen batteries ahead of time.

About 3pm, six hours into the outage, my laptop battery is so depleted, it goes into critical shut-down mode and won't even power back up again. The UPS has stopped beeping - battery fully drained too.

I decide since I can't do squat, I'll go out into the smog and get my car smog-checked (something you have to do every other year in Calif. if your car is between 7 and 30 years old in order to renew your license tags). That took about an hour, the car passed with flying colors, and I'm back home again. The power's still off. What a surprise!

Another call to Edison, no change. No one can tell me anything. "Is this outage going to last into the night or even tomorrow?" I plaintively ask, trying to mask my anger.. I get fed the same mantra: "I'm sorry, Sir, I'm not a technician." "Can't you radio the guys out there working on the job and ask them?" "I have no way to do that, sir but we expect your power to be back on by 6pm."

I'm now on my second set of AAs in the BoxWave charger. I plug it in and top off each Treo and suddenly remember I have that Medis Fuel Cell charger. Hey, let's plug that into one of the phones. Well, just as Medis advertised, and just as I mentioned in my review, once you've activated that device, it has a CLAIMED life of about three months. Although you can buy a new fuel cell pack and use the same cable with it, I didn't have any extra packs. I plug the Medis into one of my Treos.. nothing.. six weeks after I activated it, it's dead, Jim. Wunnerful.

5pm. I call Edison again. No update on the outage. Sunset approaches. No laptop, no lights, no fans, no UPS, no nothing.. I can still hear the Edison guys going up and down in their cherry picker. They're STILL working on that transformer? With an hour to go, the juice is going to magically come on at 6pm? Why do I kinda doubt this?..

A thought crosses my mind and that thought is I'm NOT going to spend the night at home in a totally power-less apartment if the AC isn't back on by the time it gets dark. I start pondering local hotels. I'm using the Treos heavily now, half out of sheer boredom and frustration, and half trying to keep from going totally "postal."

As the magic hour of 6pm approaches, I light a couple candles and try Edison one last time. Still no change in the outage recording. "I'm sorry, Sir, but that recording should have been updated." "Are you telling me this outage is going to last into the night?" "I'm sorry, Sir, I don't have any updated information." It's like talking to a wall.

I peer out the bedroom window again and it looks like the transformer, or a new one, is back up atop the pole. I don't hear any more cherry-picker noises, but this is turning into a nightmare of uncertainty. I'm down to my last charged set of AAs for the BoxWave charger.


At exactly 5:58pm the power came back on and stayed on! Lights! Fans! Refrigerator! Camera! Action! Back to 2007. Reboot the laptop. The cable modem and router come back to life. I go from appliance to appliance, resetting the clocks and timers and settings on my VCR, cable boxes, answering machine, and every other digital gizmo that lost its mind and its settings nine hours earlier.


"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" sang Joni Mitchell. Indeed, without my Treos to keep me in touch with the world, keep me entertained and informed throughout that day, and without that BoxWave battery box, nine straight hours without AC power would've been a lot uglier than it was.

The Medis Fuel Cell charger was utterly worthless.. less than two months after I had activated and briefly used it when writing my review, it was a paperweight. It didn't live up to its claims, so I have to do something I've never done in all my years of writing tech reviews � I officially UN-recommend it as an emergency charging solution. With an unactivated shelf life of only a year, and an activated shelf life (with hardly any usage) of less than two months, it was useless.

Kudos to BoxWave for making a product I could count on to charge and re-charge my heavily-used Treos on a day when I needed them like no day since I started using them. I was never a Boy Scout, but if you ever get a post card like I did, be prepared.

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