Sunday, February 16, 2020

The cruise that went worng

Hello.  Yes, I'm still alive.

I have not posted anything here in over three months mainly because I've fallen into some rather deep despair over the political situation in the U.S., a situation that doesn't promise to improve any time soon.  I am breaking radio silence now because I have just returned from a trip that turned into a rather interesting (in the sense of the Chinese curse) story that I thought I would share.  I would have live-blogged it, but the world has changed in the 17 years since I started writing, and I now have some serious doubts about the wisdom of advertising on the internet the fact that I'm away from home.

On the plus side, you won't have to wait to learn how it ends.  (Spoiler alert: we made it home OK.)

The story starts with a prelude that actually relates to the power outage that I wrote about in October.  After that experience forced us to retreat to a hotel we decided to get the house retrofitted for a generator.  That turned out to be much more complicated than I had ever imagined.  I thought that the process would be a simple matter of hiring an electrician to do the work.

I was wrong.

For starters, it turns out that electricians are really hard to find on the San Francisco peninsula.  They are all apparently quite busy nowadays.  Of the half dozen or so that I contacted, only two returned my calls, and only one gave me an estimate.  To my pleasant surprise the cost turned out to be quite reasonable, and he said he could do it without having to turn the power off to the house.  That struck me as a wee bit fishy, as I could not imagine any way that a generator hookup could be installed safely without disconnecting the power, but I figured that since he was a licensed electrician he must know what he was doing.

I was wrong about that too.

The quote he gave me included a line item for a mechanical interlock that would prevent the generator from being inadvertently connected to the grid.  The cost of that one item was surprisingly large, almost a quarter of the total.  When it came time to do the installation, the interlock was missing.  The electrician (I'm going to call him Bill -- that's not his real name) said that the part he had ordered turned out not to be the right one, and he was having trouble locating the correct part.

I have to digress here for a moment and tell you a little bit about the electrical wiring in our house.  (Believe it or not, all this will turn out to be relevant.)  We have two electric meters and two adjacent main electrical panels, all mounted on 4x4 posts out by the street.  The installation looks like this:

The panel on the left runs our house.  The one on the right is actually owned by the county, and it runs our sewage ejector pump.  Our house is built on the downhill side of a slope, and so the pump is necessary because parts of the house are below the main sewer.  In both cases, the electricity comes in to the meter through an underground conduit, runs through the meter into the main panel to the right of the meter where the circuit breakers are, and then down through another conduit to the house or the ejector pump.

So back to the story: I volunteered to help Bill find the right part for the interlock.  An internet search produced no results, so I called the technical support line for the manufacturer of our main electrical panel (Siemens).  They were very helpful, and told me that the reason we were having trouble finding the part is that it didn't exist.  The reason it didn't exist is that the panel we had was not designed to be connected to a generator.

And yet, our electrician had somehow wired it up to accept a generator.  We had a nice shiny RV-style connector to plug the generator into and two brand new breakers in the panel box.

I started to wonder what our electrician had actually done, so I opened up the main panel.  This is what it looks like when it comes from the manufacturer:

The electric meter is installed in the round opening on the left.  The electricity comes in through thick cables from below (not shown in this photo), runs through the meter, then out the the two short black cables into the main breaker on the right.  From there, two more cables (again, not shown) go down to deliver the electricity to the load.

This is what ours looked like before the installation of the generator connection:

The electricity comes in from the meter on the left through the two fat black wires and connects to the shiny metal plates behind the circuit breaker (called "busses").  It then flows through the  circuit breaker and comes out from the bottom through the red and black cables, whereupon it goes down into the conduit and into the house.

This is what it looked like after the generator cutoff installation:


You can see the two additional breakers for the generator on the right.  The small red and black wires go to the connector for the generator.  The problem (see if you can spot it yourself) is that this does not connect the generator to the house, it connects it to the main bus and thence to the grid!  Not only that, but the generator connector is wired for 120V while the grid power is 240V split-phase.  Both of the incoming black wires from the meter are hot 120V 180 degrees out of phase with each other to make 240V across the two.  But on the generator side both hots are tied together!  Not only would the generator have been connected to the grid and not the house, it would have actually shorted the grid, even if the main breaker was off!  God only knows what would have happened if I'd tried to test the installation.

Fortunately, I figured all this out before actually doing the test so we never found out.  Bill removed all the dangerous wiring and offered to give me a full refund.  I declined, on the theory that it could be handy to have an electrician who owed me a favor by not reporting him to the state licensing board.  He also convinced me that this was an honest mistake, and that in general he really did know what he was doing.

We still don't have our generator hookup (yet) but in the process of trying to figure out the right way to do it Bill and I developed a bit of a rapport.  Installing a generator to power your house the Right Way is surprisingly non-trivial, and in the end we decided to table the project until we got back from our trip.

So fast-forward a few weeks to early January, and we fly down to San Diego to board a cruise ship that is going to take us across the Pacific to Hong Kong.  We were scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong on Valentine's day, and our plan was to visit a friend in Macao, spend a few days in HK, and then fly home.  At the time our biggest concern was the protests, but we had a nice hotel in the western part of Kowloon that should have been pretty far from the action and had easy access to the airport.  We felt fairly secure in our plan.

There is not a lot of land in the Pacific between San Diego and Hong Kong.  Our first stop was Hawaii, which we would reach after five days at sea.  (Hawaii is the most isolated land mass on the entire planet.)  But three days into the trip we received a frantic email from our neighbor across the street.  Their car had rolled down their driveway and "hit your side fence and a box with cords and pipes that was next to your fence. I don’t know if this box is dangerous? Does it have electrical cords?"

I wasn't entirely certain what they were referring to (how could anyone be uncertain about whether or not they were looking at electrical cables?) so they sent us some photos.  It looked like this:


Our neighbor (I'll call her Chris, again not her real name) called PG&E and they came out and disconnected the power because this clearly was a dangerous situation.

So our house was dark.  And we were, quite literally, 1500 miles away in the middle of the ocean.

Happily, I just happened to know an electrician who owed me a favor.  :-)  I gave Chris Bill's phone number, and he was out there the next day and had the whole installation rebuilt within 24 hours.  It now looks like this:

Unfortunately, before the power could be turned back on, the new installation had to be inspected and signed off by the county.  Now, the car had taken out the meter on Thursday the 16th.  Our electrician had it all rebuilt on Friday the 17th, and the inspector actually came out the same day, but unfortunately got there just before the work was done and so was not able to sign off.  The following Monday was Martin Luther King day, so the earliest possible date to get the inspector back out was the following Tuesday.  And then we still had to get PG&E out to actually reconnect the power.  So we were looking at being dark for at least 3-4 more days.

Fortunately, we had other neighbors taking care of watering our plants, and they had a key to our house so they could come in and take all the food out of our refrigerator.  We waited anxiously through the weekend waiting for news of power being restored.  Our house has an alarm system with a battery backup, but it wouldn't last more than a few days and after that our house would be a sitting duck for burglars.

Tuesday we got word that the inspector had come out and signed off on the new construction, and now it was just matter of getting PG&E to come out and restore the power.  Our electrician told us they said they would be out on Wednesday.

Wednesday came and went.  On Thursday we were told that PG&E had come out, but our neighbor reported that evening that the house was still dark.  I sent an email to our electrician to please come out the next day and try to figure out what was going on -- maybe the main breaker was off?

I never did find out exactly what happened, but Friday evening our neighbor reported that our lights were back on.  Whew!  We breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself that nothing else could possibly go wrong on this trip.

I was, of course, wrong about that too.

By this time we had left Hawaii and were heading for the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Guam.  The corona virus was in the news, but it still seemed like a fairly remote threat.  Wuhan province is many hundreds of miles from Hong Kong, which has always seemed to me to be generally more civilized (read: sanitary) than the rest of China.  We were still more worried about the protests than about the virus.

We had a very nice time in Guam.  I got to go snorkeling, which was fun.  The coral was in pretty good shape, which was gratifying.  There were tons of fish, a few reef sharks, even a snowflake eel, which I hadn't seen in a very long time.  So that was all good.

We sailed from Guam on Feb 2.  We didn't know it at the time, but we would not make landfall again for ten days.

Our next scheduled stop was Saipan, but when we got there the winds were too high to safely enter the harbor.  We had to abandon that and go on to our next scheduled port of call, Manila in the Philippines.

We were looking forward to seeing Manila, as were many on the crew.  The Philippines is a prime source of labor on cruise ships, so over the years we have met a zillion Filipinos, but had yet to actually visit their homeland.

By this time, the Diamond Princess was just starting to make headlines because she had confirmed cases of corona virus on board and she was not being allowed to dock in Japan.  We thought we were safe because our last landfall had been in Guam.  But then the CDC issued a formal travel advisory for Hong Kong, and shortly after that, the captain announced that our final stop in Hong Kong had been cancelled.  The company had not yet decided where they were going to re-route us, but we were probably going to Taiwan.

That was disappointing.  The whole point of choosing this itinerary had been to end up in Hong Kong so we could visit our friend in Macao.  We briefly contemplated flying from Taipei to Hong Kong but abandoned that plan almost immediately.  Our friend reported that Macao had turned into a ghost town, and a few days after that she fled to New York.  So that plan was dead.

On the other hand, ending up in Taiwan didn't seem so bad.  We had been meaning to visit there one of these years, so this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.  We cancelled all our Macao and Hong Kong hotel reservations and made new ones in Taipei.

The next day, the captain made another announcement: the port at Manila had been closed to all cruise ship traffic.  We would still go there, but we would refuel at anchor in the harbor.  We would not be allowed to dock or leave the ship.  As disappointing as this news was for us, it must have been devastating for the Filipino crew who had been looking forward to seeing family and loved ones after months at sea.  I can't even begin to imagine how heartbreaking this must have been for them.

By the time we arrived in Manila, the news from the Diamond Princess (and by now the Westerdam also) was starting to look pretty dire.  The Westerdam was virus-free, but because she had been to Hong Kong she was being denied entry at every port in Asia.  Then, while we were at anchor in Manila, it was announced that the port in Taipei had also been closed to all cruise ships.  So now we had no idea where we were going to end up.

I started playing out contingencies in my mind and came to the conclusion that what we really needed to do in order to avoid a serious nightmare was to return to Guam.  I expressed this opinion to the front desk and asked them to relay it to the powers-that-be.  I don't know if my concerns ever made it up the chain of command, but it didn't matter.  I didn't know it at the time, but Guam had also been closed to all cruise ships.  Like it or not, we were heading west, towards Viet Nam, with no idea what our ultimate destination would be.

On the bright side, our ship was "clean", or so we thought.  While en route to Viet Nam we were told that we had been denied entry there because we had passengers on board who had transited through Hong Kong.  Now, remember, that had all happened before the CDC issued the Hong Kong advisory, and there was no sign that anyone on board was falling ill.  But the Vietnamese government didn't care.  We were damaged goods, cruise shippa non grata.

By then I was more worried about overreaction by government officials than I was about the virus.  With Guam, Taipei, Manila and Viet Nam all closed, where could we go?  And what would be the next shoe to drop?  Would we end up like the Westedam, roaming the ocean in search of a friendly port?

We ended up in Singapore on Feb 12 after a total of ten days at sea.  We could have gotten there faster but we were told there was no dock space available before then.  I like to believe that, but it was suggested to me that we were actually under quarantine without being told.  For the last four days we had twice-daily temperature checks.  It was more than a little surreal.  On the plus side, the ship was very nice and the crew was terrific.  The temperature checks were very unobtrusive, and the rest of the time it was business-as-usual.  By far the most stressful aspect was the uncertainty, not knowing whether our permission to dock in Singapore would be pulled at the last minute, or if we'd be able to get off the ship.  But as it happens our arrival was completely uneventful.  We were cleared to disembark in less than an hour and that was that.  We were free.

The story doesn't quite end there though.

We could have stayed on the boat for a few more days but decided to go home the next morning because so many things had already gone wrong on this trip and we didn't want to tempt fate any more than necessary.  I was also eager to get home and assess the damage to our electrical panels.  We had an early morning flight on the 13th so we decided to spend the night at a hotel by the airport.  During the night, I got up to turn off a light in the hallway of our hotel room and stubbed my toe on a piece of furniture.  I hit it hard and ended up bleeding all over the place.  Fortunately we had bandages with us, but it didn't make for a very restful night.

We finally made it home and we thought it was all over but Murphy had one more curve ball to throw at us.  I went out to look at the electrical meters and noticed that the one for the house was on, but the one for the sewage ejector pump was not.  Without power to the pump, we have about a day of normal activity before the holding tank overflows and raw sewage pours out into our yard and down to the creek behind our house.  It turns out that when the inspector came out two weeks earlier he apparently didn't realize that there were two independent meters and each one needed their own inspection sticker, so he only put one on.  Again we were up against a weekend, but happily I was able to get someone at the county to lean on PG&E and they came out the next day and turned the power on.  It was actually an interesting process.  They don't do it by throwing a switch, they do it by physically attaching the electrical cable, which is running through a concrete service box, to a receptacle.  And they do this "live" while the electricity is on, because, well, there is no switch.  It's only 240V but it was still a scary looking process.  Sparks flew because the ejector pump was actually on and so it was drawing a huge startup load.  But power was restored and the technician and I both lived to tell the tale.

So now life is finally back to normal.  But there are two interesting post-scripts to the story.  The first is that I've been told that we actually have to undergo an additional inspection inside our house to make sure that our smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors are in order.  We don't have carbon monoxide detectors.  I'm still a little unclear what this has to do with the power being cut off, but I'm told be reliable sources that yes, this is the law in California.  It's almost enough to make me want to vote Republican.

The second postscript is that after the PG&E guy connected our second electric meter, the head electrician for the county showed up to assess the situation.  He was a really nice guy and really seemed to know what he was doing.  He pointed out a couple of things that our electrician did wrong in rebuilding our setup, but they were minor and said we could probably just let them slide.  But the thing he did that made me really happy was acknowledge that the ejector pump meter belongs to the county, and so it was actually the county's responsibility to get it rebuilt.  It's a moot point now, but maybe Chris can get some reimbursement from them because right now all the costs have come out of her pocket.

Anyway, it was an interesting trip, so I thought I'd share.  More things went wrong on this trip than in all the other trips we've ever taken put together, and by a wide margin.  Hopefully in the future things will regress to the mean.