More Fun With High Voltages

That can't be good

Or maybe the day after that. I’m sorry. I have so much to catch up on after Christmas, which basically punched a gaping hole in my time. People are clamouring for cartoons to be drawn and computers to be fixed. Some of them may even pay me. Various parts of my mother’s house have to be mended. Bills need to be ignored. The calendar therefore can wait. It’s what it’s good at.

For now, just a brief anecdote: I had to replace a venerable fluorescent light fitting in the kitchen which had taken to sticking at the flickering-to-come-on stage. Pretty sure it’s been in the family since the 70s, maybe longer. While I had little hope of being able to repair the thing – I barely understand how they work – it was easy to open it up in situ so I thought I’d have a look first.

Naturally I isolated it at the circuit breaker. To do that though, I had to establish which circuit it was on. As you may have seen in the photograph I took when our main breaker melted down the other week, almost none of them are marked. And as this place is an old cottage that my father spent decades gradually restoring, I could not depend on there being any rigorous scheme. It was time for adventures in ad-hoc wiring. Off goes every electrical device in the whole house.

The kitchen lights, it turns out, are on the same circuit as the immersion heater. Weird, if not quite as strange as the oven being wired to the outside light. And one breaker controlled… Nothing at all, apparently. Which is a little creepy. That one can stay switched off.

But having isolated the light (and the water heater) I undid the nuts and lowered its works down on the integral chains. Cool. Immediately I found that the ‘choke’, or ballast, was surprisingly hot. Have a look at the picture – that’s the mains wiring, which was run next to the ballast. It has very rubbery insulation which seems to have perished where it was exposed to extreme heat. It crumbled away as soon as I moved the wire. So, pretty lucky I disconnected the power before I went poking then.

It seems likely therefore that the ballast was not designed to get so hot, and that it was failing. It plays a vital – and slightly scary – role in a fluorescent. As you may be aware, these things work by applying a big voltage to a tiny amount of mercury vapour, which then glows not unlike the wire filament in an ordinary bulb. One thing that makes a vapour different though is that as soon as it starts glowing, it actually offers less resistance to the flow of current. Left to itself, it would keep getting brighter and brighter until something went horribly wrong.

Well this is AC electricity, so current flow is being reversed fifty times a second. That prevents a runaway situation occurring, Nevertheless the choke is necessary to prevent damage being done even in that brief time. Its role is to be a sort of anti-tube; the more current flows through it, the more it resists. If it’s not doing its job properly then the tube is probably getting too much juice and overheating – fifty times every second. Which would explain why two tubes had failed in fairly quick succession.

(This is at least my understanding of the situation. Perhaps Droog will be along later to tell me why I’m wrong.)

As the huge magnetic ballast was something out of electricity’s iron age, the whole device would need to be replaced. Not such bad news – fluorescent fittings are cheap enough now. I would hang the fitting back up and go to town for one.

And then I remembered the other main component of a fluorescent lamp – the capacitor. Which must be this thing about the size of an old milk bottle. Its function is to store electric charge. It was all very well turning off the power – this still probably held enough to kick me through the kitchen window.

Gingerly, I withdrew my screwdriver and backed away.

I Nearly Died

Cleaned and repaired, but still looking somewhat Daliesque

Sorry, I suppose I shouldn’t have intimated that I was nearly killed and then not signed in for two days. You might have thought I’d succumbed to my injuries. However exactly one goes about succumbing.

In fact it’s Christmas shopping that’s kept me too busy to write. I wasn’t injured at all. It was just my mother’s house that nearly burned down.

Fortunately I was staying at my mother’s. Even more fortunately, I was still awake at half past two in the morning. OK I’m usually awake at half past two in the morning, but it’s lucky that this is usual.

The power went. A bit unexpected, but it is the middle of winter. I thought I heard one of the trips go in the circuit breaker box though (or fusebox, as we still call it).

Then another click, and the power was back on. Weird. Another, and it was off again. OK this was not good. Especially not when you begin to smell smoke.

I went to look at the fuse box, and saw something that put the fear through me. Picture the biggest wire in the house, the one that carries power in from the mains supply and is several times thicker than the ordinary domestic wiring.

Now picture that glowing like the filament of a light bulb. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it? And the only reason I could see it was that the casing of the fusebox was already starting to melt. This cable was coming off what looked like a combination of really heavy-duty circuit breaker and a huge fuse. Yet neither had stopped the current flowing – the breaker seemed to be stuck in the on position.

Fortunately it wasn’t too hot to touch, and I could trip it manually. The glowing and the smoking stopped, and the wooden board the box was mounted on survived with only a scorching. But clearly there had nearly been a fire. If my mother had been in the house alone, I dread to think.

Next day, after we replaced the failed breaker and the one that’s supposed to back it up, I also bought an extra smoke alarm. And replaced the battery of our existing one even though it still passed the test. And we are going to change the bedroom windows to ones you can escape through. It still doesn’t feel like enough though. Apparently this is not a freak occurrence. They age and fail – even though this installation was only about twenty-five years old.

I’m astonished and disturbed, frankly. With well over a century of design behind them, I would have thought – hell, I’d taken for granted – that household power systems would not have a single point of potentially lethal failure.