But power surges that light up a home like a Christmas tree, pop light bulbs, fry appliances beyond repair, melt electrical meters and leave behind an electrical stench aren’t everyday occurrences.
That’s what happened to the home of Suzanne and Dan Chamberlin in late October 2008.
Their neighborhood was hit with a freak fall snowstorm, and inches of heavy, wet snow fell onto power lines and leaf-laden tree limbs. The Chamberlins’ power went out, as did power for some 50,000 other customers.
A JCP&L crew came to restore service. When the crew flipped the switch, a power surge went into the Chamberlin’s home, with the couple and their two kids inside.
Most of their appliances died on the spot. They lost a refrigerator, a range, a microwave, a television, cordless phones and more.
“The furnace controls were fried so we had no heat. There was also a distinct smell of electrical burning over the entire exterior of our home. A surge protector on our electric meter was literally blackened, melted and fried,” Suzanne Chamberlin said.
For the next two days, Chamberlin said she tried to get JCP&L back to the house.
“We didn’t mind being without power. It has happened before, it will happen again,” she said. “We did mind not knowing if we had damage to our wiring. We did not know what would happen when and if we threw the breaker back on.”
Finally, on the third day, Chamberlin said several JCP&L trucks came. Smelling the electrical odor, she said the crews immediately dismantled the electric meter, took out the fried surge protector, replaced the meter, repaired the wiring problem from the road to the house and told them they were good to go.
Chamberlin said workers told her she’d have an easy claim with JCP&L for the damage. But it wasn’t so easy.
The couple sent several letters to JCP&L, detailing the damage with repair estimates. After an investigation, correspondence from JCP&L said the utility wasn’t at fault.
“It comes down to this: No other entity could have sent a power surge into our house. We couldn’t have done it to ourselves,” Chamberlin said. ‘”No one else is responsible for the power lines.”
In the meantime, they turned to their homeowner’s insurance for some relief. They received partial payment toward their costs of $756.95 to repair their furnace and $3,602.84 to replace and repair appliances. That amount was low, based on the original cost of 10-year-old appliances and for some items, just the cost for repair.
The Chamberlins sent a letter of complaint to the Board of Public Utilities, but BPU said in its response that it doesn’t “adjudicate claims for damages,” and it recommended the couple “contact the appropriate court of law.”
Chamberlin estimates they’re out $1,100, plus a $500 insurance deductible.
“JCP&L should recognize its responsibility in this matter, admit its horrific service in trying to get this resolved, pay our insurance deductible and reimburse us for any amount not covered by insurance,” Chamberlin said, “not to mention something for nearly burning our house down.”
Following the current of responsibility
There are several different wires that conduct power down the street and into homes. After this storm, JCP&L fixed lines on the street. When they flipped the switch to restore power, yes, there was a power surge to the house. But it’s not because of something the utility did. An additional line, called the neutral wire, was also damaged by the same storm.
The neutral wire serves as a reference point for the voltage that enters a home. Without the neutral, voltage can be too low, or elevated, potentially knocking out appliances.
JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano said during a storm, the company works to restore the primary service to an area.
“There was not a report of damage to the service that comes into the house, and that includes the neutral wire,” Morano said.
Had there been obvious damage to the line, such as a leaning tree limb, the crews would have checked it.
But given the importance of the neutral line, shouldn’t they be checking?
For an objective opinion, Bamboozled asked Jeff Sargent, a senior electrical specialist at the National Fire Protection Agency. Sargent said it’s not customary to check a neutral line during a widespread power outage, nor is it part of the NPFA’s recommended codes or standards.
Sargent said if an individual home had an outage from a downed tree, the company would probably check the neutral wire — but not when there’s an outage in a neighborhood.
A review of JCP&L’s Tarriff basically said as much.
Unfortunately for the Chamberlins, unless they choose to pursue legal measures, they’re at a dead end. But for the rest of us, there’s still a lesson to be learned.
Know that overhead lines are susceptible to damage in a storm. If you fear your neutral wire could be damaged — something the average homeowner won’t be able to eyeball — notify the power company that there could be a problem.
“Shut off your main circuit breaker if you suspect the lines are damaged,” Sargent said. “If power is restored to the neighborhood and you lose your neutral, you’ll end up with potential damage to your electrical equipment.”
Like the Chamberlins.
They still hold JCP&L responsible, and Suzanne Chamberlin likens the company’s response to an inattentive motorist.
“It’s like you drive down the street and you hit someone with your car,” she explained. “But then you say it’s not your fault because you drive down the same street every day, and that person wasn’t there last time. It galls me every single month when I pay my electric bill.”