Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Ice caps: Surviving the storm of the century

April 6, 2009
By Dick Morley

Dick MorleyThe Northeast United States had an ice storm in December; the worst ever. I thought I would take a break from a technical focus this month to let you all know how I survived the storm.

We live in a remote area of Southern New Hampshire and are inured to storms. Our snowfall varies between zero to 12 metres a winter. We are technically not on the power grid. We get power from a long extension cord plugged into a socket two towns away. If any incident occurs to the feed to our section of town, we lose power. The power cannot be switched to another feed. Short outages occur every week, and we usually have a several day loss of power two times a year. Ditto for the T1 wireless.
The Barn and House (capitalized because that is their names) have decent power backup systems. We have an eight- and a two-kilowatt gasoline generator capable of running the facility on a reduced basis. We can’t use electric heating or our dryer. I listened to the forecast and thought we were ready for the storm headed our way. The buildings are well insulated and can stand a four-hour interrupt without alternative power.

When the storm started, we were awakened in the middle of the night by the crashing of branches and trees all around our house. Several hours of continuous action worried us, so we fired up two of our four fireplaces and turned on our flashlights. In the morning, we went down to pull the eight-kilowatt unit out of Barn and fire it up. We started up this electric beast and went to the four breaker panels to shed unnecessary loads. We disconnected the high-lines (we have one for each building) and all electric heat, but kept our oil heat, water, refrigeration, lights and the electric blanket, of course. But we were low on gasoline. The system uses four litres an hour, and we had only eight hours of fuel left. My son and I loaded six five-gallon carriers on my receiver hitch carrier and set off on the search.

This is when we realized the severity of the ice storm. Even with a Jeep, we had trouble leaving the yard and getting to town. We travelled many miles across Southern New Hampshire and into Massachusetts, and came back empty handed. We finally called police dispatch and were told that one station was available in the north. Phew. Getting there was difficult, even for us in the off-road-equipped vehicle, because roads were blocked. Eventually we made it to the fuel station and then back home, and managed to keep the generator running. We used a lot of propane in the salamander heaters as supplemental heat, and one of us had to service the system every four hours.


The saga lasted 10 days for us, although some dwellings were out for 13 days. We ran out of split wood, propane, gasoline, bandwidth, chain saws and sleep. We did not run out of food, clothing, heat, diesel fuel, telephone service and attitude.

The clean up went well. Our farm tractors cleaned up the brush, and my CASE 58-C backhoe carried off the large branches. The town and state highway departments were out in force, and the out-of-state and out-of-country utility teams were great, particularly Quebec Hydro.

During all of this, my office partner was in Florida. Argh.

Now that it’s behind us, what did we learn? No matter what you have for resources, you will have bad days, as described in the book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The title refers to the Australian black swan. In earlier days in Europe, swans were white and beautiful. With the discovery of the black swan, the world of swans changed. The European culture did not like the improbable discovery.

The Taleb book relates this thinking to stock market cycles and predicting the future. We tend to predict future events based on the extrapolation of past trends. We construct stories around past events with little regard for earthquakes, meteor strikes, ice ages and budget cuts. In our venture capital investments, none of the companies built the business with the application chosen in their early business plans. I have a vision (nay, a nightmare) of a field of companies, dumb and happy, being attacked by a flock of black swans.

In my fifty-some years of engineering, I can only remember one time that I delivered on time and on budget. My life is littered with improbable events. In the ice storm, we had a strong five days of backup until the black swans flew over New Hampshire. You cannot predict what the disruptive event will be, but be assured there will be one.

General Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This suggests that Lean manufacturing, standards committees and spreadsheet budgeting are only useful to the naïve optimist.

Gird your loins.

Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at

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