Too much power to the people

In microseconds, power surges blow up TVs, computers and casino slot machines. Who’s responsible for the damages?

Glenda Johnson hangs out in her kitchen with companions Taco, the long-haired Chihuahua, and her personal computer that she says was taken out by a power surge.

Glenda Johnson hangs out in her kitchen with companions Taco, the long-haired Chihuahua, and her personal computer that she says was taken out by a power surge.

Photo By David Robert

A town hall meeting will be held for Sierra Pacific Power Company customers regarding electric disturbance issues at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 at Alyce Taylor Elementary, 252 Egyptian Drive, Sparks. Call 851-8225.

A decoupaged Elvis hangs over an ancient RCA console television, borrowed from a friend, that brings The People’s Court into Glenda Johnson’s living room. Next to the television is Glenda’s collection of toy frogs. Because she says she has seizures and neuropathy of the arms and legs, Glenda stays home in her small Reno apartment with her long-haired Chihuahua, Taco. The dog has saved her life at least once, she says, by barking incessantly to attract the attention of neighbors when she’d passed out on the living room floor.

It’s a good thing that Taco doesn’t run on electricity.

Until April, one of the 56-year-old disabled woman’s most prized of possessions was a hardly new personal computer on which she played games like solitaire and Yahtzee, as well as used the Internet.

Now the computer sits unused on her kitchen table, not far from a dusty fan that provides a bit of relief from the hot summer afternoon. A power surge in late April, Glenda says, wrecked her television and her computer. At that time, she was living in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Reno where she’d been having power surges on and off since January.

“It’s ready to be trashed,” Glenda says. “That was my only way to be with the outside world.”

Since she’s on a fixed income of $565 per month, she won’t be buying another computer any time soon. And she didn’t know who to call to complain about the damage. After seeing an advertisement in the newspaper, she called utility activist Wanda Wright, who’s running for state senator. On Wright’s advice, Glenda called Sierra Pacific Power Company’s claims department. But a power surge at that time in that area wasn’t documented, Glenda says she was told. And she couldn’t document the damage done to her electronics. Her claim was rejected, she says.

“I didn’t save no receipts or nothing,” Glenda says. “I just don’t understand why Sierra Pacific is acting this way. I pay my bill, about $150 a month to them. If I was late with my bill, they would shut my electricity off in a heartbeat. Why don’t they live up to their end of the bargain?”

Wanda Wright’s latest ad in the Big Nickel announces a meeting that will be held Aug. 13 for disgruntled power users who’ve lost electronics to power surges.

“We are going to have a good old town meeting for all of the people who’ve had stuff blown up by Sierra Pacific’s power surges,” Wright says. “We want to tell people who they should get in touch with, and we’re looking for an attorney who’ll take it for a class action lawsuit. Sierra Pacific is turning a deaf ear.”

A power surge (also called a transient, spike or impulse) happens when voltage increases significantly above the standard amount for which electrical appliances are designed. In the United States, that’s 120 volts. If a surge of electricity going through a wire gets high enough, it melts the wire and destroys it, much like the filament of a burned-out light bulb. This can damage all manner of sensitive electronic equipment like clocks, VCRs, computers, answering machines and security alarm systems. (For more information on power quality issues, a visit to Sierra Pacific’s “Power Quality” page on its Web site is recommended. The site’s at www.sierrapacific.com/services/ewg/electric/power. The page also has a link to an electric disturbance log that customers can fill out to help Sierra Pacific personnel identify long-standing problems.)

Plugging electronic items into a surge protector can help. But Wright says that no surge protector invented could save the televisions on her ranch in Palomino Valley.

To be fair, Wright says that Sierra Pacific pays many of her claims. She’s had televisions and other electronics repaired and replaced. But a power surge on May 11 cooked her 46-inch Zenith. It cost $190 to repair the TV, and Wright is steaming over the utility’s rejection of her claim.

The power company, she says, insists that a bird hit the line on May 10 causing a 9-hour power outage followed by a surge on May 11 that wrecked electronic items in her house, as well as appliances in six of her neighbors’ homes. But Wright’s also talked to folks in other parts of the North Valleys, who couldn’t possibly be getting power from the same line. These individuals also experienced a TV-busting surge on May 11.

“They tell me my power comes from [the power plant in] Sutcliffe,” Wright says. “But the Tracy people also had power surges. And I got a call from Panther Valley. I don’t know where that power comes from, but it’s right under the Alturas line. … It must have been one hell of a big bird. I want to meet that bird.”

Sierra Pacific tries to make it easy for people to file a claim, says Gary Aldax, a public relations representative for the power company.

People with claims can write a letter to Sierra Pacific, and they can also call in and file their claim over the phone. Then the claims department looks into the problem.

“When it can be linked to negligence on the part of the company, we’ll pay it,” Aldaz says. “There are times when stuff goes wrong.”

But in instances that are outside of Sierra Pacific’s control, like bad weather, a car hitting a pole or a large bird flying into the wires, the claims are denied.

Aldax couldn’t address any specific customers or claims, but in areas like Palomino Valley, well, “Anytime you have a line out there, there’s a chance for things to go wrong.”

The company doesn’t track, Aldax says, how many claims related to electronic disturbances are filed with Sierra Pacific. And there’s no percentages that indicate how many of the claims are granted or rejected.

“Each claim is investigated individually,” Aldax says. “But as for percentages, we don’t even keep track [of claims] that way.”

Dealing with power surges, spikes and outages is nothing new for Fred Crosby of Crosby’s Lodge in Sutcliffe.

“We’ve had this problem for years out here,” Crosby says. “Sometimes the power is off for 10 or 12 hours. …We’ve lost freezer compressors [to power surges], had light bulbs blown out, [damaged] computer boards on slot machines. A lot of times, [fluctuations in power supplies] just damage them so they go out a month later.”

Crosby spent $12,000 on a generator to use during long outages that happen seven or eight times a year, he says.

“We have freezers full of ice cream, and they can’t last that long,” he says. Protecting against power surges is a bit more difficult. He’s installed surge protectors that don’t seem to help.

Insurance doesn’t cover the thousands of dollars in damages that Crosby’s had over the years. And when it comes to Sierra Pacific paying claims, Crosby says he has no way of verifying what Sierra Pacific says about the reasons for surges.

“Maybe some is an act of God,” he says. “There’s a little bit of rain, a little bit of wind and the power goes off. They just tell you it’s not their fault. We don’t know what happened. It’s just their word—what they say, and they have 400 damn reasons.”

Crosby and his wife Judy took the family business over in 1980. His parents, Allan and June, opened Crosby’s Lodge in 1957.

The power sometimes blinks on and off a couple times a day for a while. Then it’ll be OK again.

“They just say the line out here is old," Crosby says. "It needs work. … Shit, my power bill is like $2,500 a month or more, and then I’ve gotta take care of my equipment."