How I survived The Fairly Minor Ellsworth Blackout of 2016

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Work crews replace a damaged utility pole in Ellsworth on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. A storm the night before knocked out power to thousands of Mainers, mostly in Hancock County. Bill Trotter photo

On Sunday, I tried to start up a new-to-me generator that my wife and I bought in November on the Facebook page Bar Harbor Barter & Swap.

Eight years we have lived in our house in Ellsworth, muddling our way through occasional outages with a power inverter that I would hook up to my car, running the extension cord through the laundry room window to the refrigerator inside, or with a small 1850-watt generator we got from my father-in-law.

We live right in town, so our outages have been relatively few and short-lived — none of this no-power-for-three-days stuff. And yet, we decided we had it. We wanted a generator that would power the furnace, light up our laptops and crank up our electric range.

So, when weather predictions this past weekend suggested the wind and rain might knock our power out, I thought I would give our “new” PowerBoss 5500-watt generator a whirl. I rolled it out from the garage to the driveway, yanked the cord repeatedly for a solid two minutes, got nowhere, and quit. The rain was starting to come down and I wanted to watch the Packers game. We’ll be fine, I said.

I can tell you God does exist because He/She waited until there was less than a minute left in Green Bay’s 35-18 blowout of Washington before proving me wrong. Lying on the couch, watching the final seconds tick down, I heard the mayhem happen outside: Whoosh, crack, pop.

Darkness.

Oh well. We went to bed early and decided to wait until morning to assess things. Temperatures were expected to stay in the 40s overnight, so there was no real rush.

When I got up Monday morning, I saw what had made the noise: the wind had severed the top of a tree down the road and sent it crashing down on the power lines below, snapping the top of a nearby power pole. I also saw, thanks to the strong 4G signal on my smartphone, that Emera was predicting it would have outages in Hancock County repaired by 10 p.m. Wednesday, by which time temperatures again would be well below freezing.

Two days? Minutes later, I rolled the PowerBoss back out into the driveway.

There, I gave it my best shot with all the physical force I could muster. Pull. Nothing. Pull. Nothing. Yank yank yank yank yank yank yank yank <curse word> yank yank yank yank yank yank yank <curse word> yank yank and so on and so forth. Nada.

Naturally, I then made online appeals for help, briefly considering and then deciding against mounting a Kickstarter campaign to pay for generator tutor to come to my house immediately. I soon got suggestions back via Facebook and Twitter, some of which were actually helpful.

I went out and bought dry gas, fuel stabilizer and starter fluid. The starter fluid showed promise, actually getting the engine to kick over after I sprayed it into the carburetor, but after sputtering for less than two seconds the engine would go quiet — every time. Pull. Nothing. Spray. Pull. Cough. Silence.

I confirmed that the fuel line was not clogged and steeled myself for the eventuality of having to drain the old gasoline that came with the device when we acquired it. Then, when a friend with generator experience offered to come over to help out after work, I nearly wept with joy. Just the thought of it helped restore some of the feeling in my arm. Yes, please.

He came by and it is a good thing he did because I never — NEVER — would have had the inkling or know-how to remove the carburetor, open the attached bowl, clean it out and put it all back.

We did that (mostly him) in the glare of the headlights of my running car while kneeling in my driveway. We drained the gasoline from the generator, put fresh fuel in, and then I dug deep for every modicum of strength I could find in my right arm.

Never have I been happier to hear a noise so obnoxious. The generator sprang to life. My house was saved. My family would survive.

Despite this lifetime achievement, I was not disappointed when, a few hours later, after the pellet stove had reversed the falling temperature trend inside my house, Emera’s flashing lights appeared down the block. Twenty-seven hours after the power had gone out, and two days in advance of Emera’s restoration date, the group of houses around the felled tree were reconnected to the grid. The lights came on, my television blared some show that was not football, and the furnace kicked in.

As far as I know, I am the first person in my bloodline to have helped successfully fix and then start a generator capable of powering an entire house. I do not take this lightly. It is an accomplishment that may well one day appear on my gravestone.

If the coming snowstorm has more outages in store, I strongly believe I’ll be able to start the generator again without risk of exhaustion. That way, I’ll be able to save my strength for posting snowstorm selfies on Facebook.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.