Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Generation Zero

I woke up on Sunday to discover the power was out in our building…not that much of a surprise as the power often is off one day of a weekend per month… we were due. Yet, our generator is supposed to come on automatically when the power goes out, but while I heard it come on, it shut itself off again almost immediately. Because I had a Skype date with my parents I tried to start it manually, but I only got 15 minutes of power before the internal circuit breaker on the generator flipped and refused to stay on. I figured that was a bad sign, so I gave up.

My new Japanese housemate and I made lunch with supervision provided by our nosy (but fairly pleasant) next door neighbor – ahh, the pleasures of having an almost-public kitchen on the ground floor. That in the end was fine – we just made spaghetti and it was fine except for we had to try to fry the garlic bread instead of toast it in the electric oven. Things started going downhill when our nosy neighbor pointed out that his compressor for his motorbike washing business was working again, so the electricity was back on. Except that it wasn’t in our building.

So we ate lunch, and then I went down to investigate. Ali had warned me that sometimes our generator/electrical system was touchy, so I first checked to see what was going on down there. Sure enough, the lights on our super high-techy electric box were lit, but no juice coming out. So I flipped some switches and pushed a few buttons. Nothing. So I opened up the box – and looked at the rows and rows of wiring. I found a couple of circuit breaker switches – and noted that they were all (except one) tripped. So I pushed on – and the power came on. I let go and it tripped right off again. Great.

Time to call an electrician. Oops, wait Erica, you’re in Cao Bang, Vietnam. You don’t speak the language and you have zero idea how to find an electrician (on a Sunday afternoon no less). So I called my (new) translator and asked her to call our administrative assistant (who of course wasn’t home). Then she came and dragged over a man (her husband, maybe?). He stared at the box as if he should have a clue (considering he’s a male) and pushed a few buttons, watched the light come on, then trip off again, then watched the automatic setting try to turn on the electricity (it’s set up so that when the power is on, it will automatically turn off the generator and the regular circuits on), only to be tripped off again immediately. My diagnosis – need an electrician. They wanted to keep pushing buttons. This guy actually did want to do the right thing – disconnect the generator – but with his general air of not-quite-confident-around-so-many-colored-wires I insisted we get some real professional in so that at least if they screwed it up, they were responsible for the screw-up. Hey, I have a business to look after. So I insisted the talk to the landlord (who grudgingly made his way over) so at least he would know that we’re digging into the bowels of the electrical systems to his building, and then call a real electrician.

The next guys who showed up at least had a volt meter, so I took that as a good sign. Not that they looked a heck of a lot more confident, but some of the right equipment was a start anyway. Turns out the system they installed in our office was installed by a company in Hanoi – they installed a really modern system that nobody in Cao Bang knows how to service. Perfect. And no warranty on the system. So, our local electricians were given the green light to do what they could.

The started tearing into the board, pushing this and prodding that. And a lot of the time, just staring. I’m amazed at the ability for men from any race, country, ethnicity or creed to develop fascination with boxes. It doesn’t even seem to matter what the box is really like or what it contains (as anybody who has watched a man who married a blond will attest), but they can spend hours doing nothing but stare at it. And if one man is staring at a box, then every other man who passes by must stop and stare also. Soon we had some 10 men standing in a tight corner of our motorbike park, staring at the lights on this box (which refused to change). I should’ve taken a picture. The poked and prodded some more, then finally asked permission to do what they should’ve done in the beginning – disconnect the generator.

I’m not sure if it’s just what my translator was saying, or if they guys were actually concerned, but according to her, they didn’t want to disconnect the generator in the electric box because they were afraid that I wouldn’t want the generator to be unavailable as a back-up power source. Well, now come on. So, the problem at the moment is that the power is not on in the building, apparently because the generator is disrupting things, but the generator itself isn’t working, so it can’t give me power either. Duh – so I would like power from whatever source I can get it, preferably from the city power source, and the generator is a nice thing to have, but not essential.

So they took out the little box that connects the generator to the rest of the building system. And voila – the lights came on. And sure enough, the little box with all the generator controls was a small mess of fried wires and melted plastic. Something overloaded (the generator, apparently) and the circuit box was doing its exact job.

I’m sure I missed half of what all was going on due to a lack of translation (my new translator isn’t trained to keep me in the loop so well yet), but some of the questions she “translated” for me seemed downright funny – like them telling me that now I won’t be able to use the generator while they were holding the generator box in their hand. Well, yeah, duh – not like I was able to use it before either. Sigh.

Anyway, it’s over and the lights are on. The guys are going to try to repair the box, but I think we need to look at repairing the generator first. After this all got started and while the guys were busy staring at the box on the wall I asked my admin assistant when the last time the oil had been checked or the air filter had been changed in the generator. Or any other maintenance for that matter. Apparently not for over a year. And it has been running rough, if at all, the last couple of times the power went out but nobody has made any effort to address these problems. Today about 15 minutes after I started it, the AC circuit breaker tripped on the machine – but the machine was running so rough (bouncing up and down) that I wondered if the physical movement of the machine had flipped the switch. So I shut down, flipped the switch and ran it again. Again, about 10 minutes (enough for me to get downstairs) and the power was out again – and again the AC circuit. So I’m not sure what was chicken-and-the-egg in this – if the generator is overloading and fried the circuit box down below, or if the circuit box got damaged and the generator circuit breaker got flipped accidentally, but this week we will be servicing the thing before we try hooking it up to our building’s electrical systems again. Or if I can get that translated correctly we will.

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