On a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in Chicago two weeks ago, there was a loud explosion behind our apartment building. BOOM! and the electricity went off. My boyfriend and I laughed and joked about the air conditioners in the city – that they had finally done it; maxed out the ComEd power grid. For weeks it’s been in the high 80s and 90s, day after day, but we are environmental types, and refuse to buy an air conditioner. We don’t even have a fan. I work at home, so the first week of this hot summer was rough, but I acclimated well. As July wore on, we watched more and more AC units pop up in our neighbor’s windows, until everyone was running a unit at night, which makes for a noisy atmosphere when you’re sleeping with the windows open. Between the heat, some intense business shifts and self-imposed deadlines, I had been draining myself of energy. When the electricity went out, I thought, “Perfect. Now I’m literally powerless.”
The transformer which kaboomed that Sunday blew itself clear off its pole. It took 36 hours to install new poles, new transformers (2 this time) and new lines to the buildings affected in our block. Meanwhile the contents of our fridge died a slow death, despite the bags of ice we set in there. But the evenings were nice; we slept in the lakefront breezes in the living room, camped out on the floor. And it was quiet – no AC units buzzing away. Tuesday morning about 1am, the power came back on. I got back to work in the morning, but it was like walking in deep mud; everything was a struggle. Something was draining me, sucking my power. I ignored it and kept pushing forward.
Thursday night I opened our electric bill. Typically we average about 120 kwh a month, thanks to an older refrigerator. I gasped; the bill said 577 kwh for July! What the WHAT? I went down to the basement and our electric meter was spinning like crazy. Another 220 kwh had racked up since the actual reading on Monday (and the electric was out until Tuesday!) I went to bed irritated at this intrusion into my busy week. I had already lost 2 days with the blackout, and now it was going to cost me another day and hundreds of dollars if they couldn’t fix the issue fast.
Friday morning, I got on the phone with ComEd, and they snarkily tell me it’s my problem. Not their issue, we must have something in our place that is using the extra power. Damn these corporate monopolies. I explain, “We don’t even have a fan!” She is deaf to my logic, and keeps telling me it must be something in our unit, there’s nothing wrong with their meter. I’m powerless. I give up on ComEd, vow to buy more solar stocks, and start my investigation.
The search is no longer just about the electric bill. I’ve tied it to the recent drains on my personal power, and I am dead-set on discovering who (or what) is stealing my energy. My first move is to call my Dad, a retired electrician, and review the possibilities. We set up a plan and I’m on it. Our breaker panel has 6 breakers. One by one, I shut them down, run up the stairs and see what it has turned off in our apartment. The bottom three don’t work anything in our unit. Good. Off. The next one up is our fridge, just our fridge, and it doesn’t send the meter spinning. Leave that on. The last two are connected, a double 30amp, and when I turn them on the meter doesn’t spin fast. Hmm. Run upstairs and see it runs our lights and outlets. At this point, I’m dripping wet with sweat from running up and down four flights in the heat, and our building manager is helping me sleuth the situation. We deduce that it may be someone’s AC unit on our breaker, and since it is after 9am, they may have turned it off for the day while they are at work. So we’ll see what happens after 5pm. Before he goes, he reminds me they are shutting off the water for the day for repairs. I take my sweaty self to the gym and run out my frustration, happily distracted by the Tour de France. The gym is practically empty, and I have most of the amenities to myself. It’s like a private spa. I feel better and wonder why I don’t go during off hours more often.
My husband and I go to dinner, come back at 7:30pm, and find the meter spinning away. We shut the breaker off again, hoping the culprit will complain to the building manager and reveal the source of the problem. Saturday afternoon comes, and no complaints have surfaced. We’re determined now, and since the fridge is on a separate breaker and running fine, we keep the breaker off all weekend. No lights or outlets, but we just did this last weekend, it’s light until 8pm, and we enjoy the break from our computers. We realize our next door neighbors to the south are away, whom I heavily suspect because they got a new AC unit in July. We hold steady, breakers off, until they return the next day. Sunday afternoon we see our neighbor’s AC running. Damn, it’s not them! I start to feel hopeless, since the manager told me the neighbor to the north does not have an AC unit. What could be using all of this energy? Later that night, my husband runs into our north neighbor in the hall. He asks him if he’s had any trouble with his outlets. The neighbor replies, “Yeah, my AC outlet went out Friday night. I have it on an extension cord into my kitchen now.” I overhear this conversation and starting cheering silently. My husband closes the door behind him and we jump up and down, celebrating like mimes so our neighbor won’t hear us. We found our power drain.
The building manager arrives Monday with an electrician. After testing the north and south apartment breakers, we discover the offending outlet connected to our line. It is indeed our north neighbor. They pull the wires right out of the wall, so it cannot be reconnected in the future, and rewire his outlet to his own breaker. Also, our bookcase light is wired to our south neighbor, but since it is an involved job to rewire it, and we hardly use it, they leave it on his line and tell me to keep quiet about it. Apparently our building used to have ginormous 2 bedroom, 2 bath luxury apartments “back in the day” and they’ve been chopping them up since World War II into smaller and smaller units. I fantasize what it used to look like, and am grateful we got the original fireplace. I hand the manager a breakdown of what our neighbor owes us on our bill, and ask him about some other minor repairs in our unit. We end up with a new bathroom sink drain, and a brand new faucet and sprayer in our kitchen. I walk around our apartment on Wednesday after everything is fixed and feel refreshed, born anew, and proud of my diligence. I feel the power situation has been exorcised from our apartment. Later on, my husband pulls our bookcase light string and it comes off in his hand. Apparently, there will be no more power drains for anyone.
The whole experience of losing power sent a clear message to me as it paralleled my days. My living space seems to be reflecting what’s happening with my inner space. Something is draining me on occasion, and I need to find out what it is. There are activities that give me energy, even when it seems like adding something to the day is heaping on more tasks. Those things I am happy to do. But the power drains; these take some investigation. You need a focused effort to reveal what is taking your personal power. I’m committed to finding out what is sapping my strength, and I’m implementing the same strategy as we used in the electric situation. One by one, I’m testing my breakers. Day by day. What provides confidence, power, and a good energy supply, stays on. Whatever drains my power is getting cut off – or better yet- I’ll rip those connections right out so they can’t get at me in the future.