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The Day I Turned Off the Main Breaker

By Keith Hlavacs

From the April, 2003 Switchers' Quarterly


Bruce Crawford's past SQ article about the big snowstorm and having C.O.'s go down due to a power outage reminded me of an experience that I had early in my career as a switchman. It was in approximately 1980 when I was a wet behind the ears 21 years old. I had worked only 3 years full time (4 1/2 years including part time) for the old Wolverine Telephone Company (this was before the TDS acquisition).

Central Office

It was on a Saturday morning, which means the morning after a Friday night "out on the town," and I was soundly sleeping. I was awakened by the phone ringing, and our I&R (installation and repair) man for Fostoria was on the phone. In those days of good old electromechanical technology, we didn't get called in after hours or on weekends for central office problems very often. He told me that he was getting a lot of trouble reports in Fostoria and that some alarm lights were lit on the power board in the Fostoria Co and that I was the only one that he was able to reach.

When I asked what kind of alarms that they were, he said something about "low voltage." He then went on to tell me that during the lightning storm the night before lightning had hit a pole about 2 or 3 miles South of town and had popped a few MDF protectors.

I then got dressed and headed for Fostoria, about a half hour drive. Fostoria had an XY office located in a trailer. When this office was built the trailer was first set up in Millington where all the equipment, less the MDF, Batteries and rectifiers were installed. The trailer was then hauled to Fostoria and backed up to the existing cement block building, which contained a North Electric CX2OOA (all relay switch) that was to be replaced.

Truck

The wheels were then taken off and the trailer set up on blocks and skirting was placed around its bottom edge. The new MDF was installed in the old building, as well as the batteries and rectifiers. The cables that went to the MDF had been terminated on one end only and the loose ends were then ran to the MDF and terminated.

The cables came in a big bundle from the "trailer" switch room to the MDF, which was "gob tied" (in other words, tied in a big bundle) on the cable rack.

Backing Up

Anyhow, I arrived at the office and started to assess the situation. The I&R man was right, there was a low voltage alarm light on the power board. The volt meter read below 40 volts (52 volts was normal) and the switch room was quiet except for a few people trying to call in on the incoming EAS selectors from Columbiaville and Mayville. The EAS was on physical cable circuits, so there was no carrier equipment to go down on the EAS trunks, which is why they were still able to pulse.

The incoming selectors were making pitifully weak ragged pulsing sounds, which at the time I imagined that it sounded as if the switches were clogged with thick peanut butter. On the MDF there were dozens and dozens of protectors blown. On the old Cook 6800 protectors this was indicated by a little gray button that popped out when the heat coil was blown. I walked into the back room where the rectifiers (battery chargers) were located.

The original rectifier was an old 25 Amp Lorain Flotrol that was built like a tank and weighed like one. It stood about 4 feet tall. The laminations in it's transformers had loosened over the years, causing it to give off a LOUD buzzing sound when it operated. For this reason I gave it the nickname the "screaming Flotrol".

The rectifier had been running at or near its 25 amp capacity, so a used 50 amp rectifier had been purchased and mounted next to it. Since they were of different sizes and makes, they did not share the load evenly, but at least both of them took part of the load. When I checked them, both rectifiers were dead.

I then discovered they had no AC power. I went into the bathroom where the AC breaker was located and discovered that the single breaker that fed both rectifiers was off. I turned the breaker back on and BANG it switched right back off.

Now what? It wasn't as if I could call and ask for advice since none of the phones worked (and this was way before there were cellular phones)!

Apparently what had happened was this; Lightning struck the pole South of town. This caused a whole bunch of lines to all seize at once, and also threw a large voltage surge into the office at the same time. When the second rectifier was added, it was (foolishly) wired to the same AC feed (and the same 120 volt circuit breaker) as the old one. This was the weak link, and when the current surged due to the lightning strike, the AC breaker switched off. The batteries then slowly drained down due to the normal office load. When I turned the AC breaker back on, both rectifiers drew a huge amount of current due to the batteries being "flat" along with the office load., causing the AC breaker to shut off immediately.

I then had a plan. I would kill the office load, and try turning on one rectifier. I then went and did what seemed to be an (in those days) unthinkable action. I went to the power board and shut off the main DC breaker which supplied the entire central office.

What the heck, nothing was working anyway! I then shut off the AC input breakers on both rectifiers, and turned on the AC breaker in the AC panel in the bathroom. I decided to try using the old screaming Flotrol, since I figured it would be harder to damage it.

When I tumed it back on, it moaned and groaned and screamed but I kept my fingers crossed and it held. I decided to leave the main breaker off (leave the office dead) for a while until the batteries had some time to recover and get a little bit charged back up. I then went and released all of the switches by hand that were still up, and turned down several line finders in each group (shelf) so that the load would not be so high when I turned the main breaker back on.

Then I sat and waited. A few of the local townspeople started to show up at the C.O. asking why all the phones were dead. I remember in particular one individual that came in and related to me "I remember when old Charlie Chambers used to own this telephone company." In those days it was called the Chambers Telephone Company and served only Fostoria. Wolverine Telephone Company bought it from Charlie Chambers in 1963.

The old guy went on to tell me that his combine would knock down old Charlie's (open) wire(s) just about every year. He had suggested that Charlie buy him some steel to build a deflector or kind of a ramp on his combine so that the wires would push up over the top rather than getting caught and breaking. But he said that Charlie didn't go along with his idea, so he kept breaking those wires every year and Charlie had to keep putting them back up. (An interesting aside, telephone collector Len Nephew's in-laws were related to this very same Charlie Chambers that used to own the Chambers Telephone Company).

Now that a little more than a half hour had passed with the batteries on charge I cautiously switched on the main DC breaker. All the necessary breakers held and the office came back to life. I left several line finders turned down and the second rectifier turned off until Monday. My adventure had now ended and I headed back home.