The phone rang off the hook at Tann Electric for days after a winter ice storm slammed Kansas City during the last three days of January.
Frozen tree limbs crashed on power lines and ripped the meter housings apart from homes, leaving 420,000 homes without power.
John Tann, president and owner of Tann Electric, said all 15 of his electricians responded to the ice storm, the worst ever in Kansas City — a town known for bad ice storms.
“Our philosophy is to get the power back on to the people as soon as we can,” Tann said. “We were fairly successful in getting people's power back on the day they called us.”
Tann Electric, a 10-year-old service company in Lenexa, Kan., specializes in electrical and datacom work for residential customers. In the first few days of the ice storm, freezing rain covered the streets of Kansas City, transformers blew and entire neighborhoods turned pitch black. Tann said his customer service crew handled hundreds of phone calls.
“I compared it to is the Jerry Lewis Telethon,” Tann said. “We tried to handle every call that came in. I know that we've had some customers say that they couldn't get through, but we tried to answer the phone and take calls every day. In the 10 days following the storm, we took nearly 500 storm-related orders.”
Tann Electric temporarily lost power, but with its computers on backup and its phone system still in operation, they continued to take service calls.
“We had a few less lights, but we kept on going,” Tann said.
Tann said his company replaced the entire service and some of the branch circuit conductors for one customer, and discovered a potentially dangerous situation at another home.
“In one case, a homeowner went down to his basement because he was curious about his sizzling water main,” Tann said. “He would regularly grab ahold of it to see how warm it was. When we arrived, we found this water pipe 120V to ground.”
The Lenexa, Kan. division of McBride Electric, an electrical contracting company based in San Diego, also made the scene with storm repair work. Robin Yessen, McBride Electric's division manager, said the company spent much of its time in the early days of the storm's aftermath rebuilding service entrances. “The ice storm pulled a lot of meter housings away from homes,” he said. “Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) asked us to bring the meter housings back to code.”
He added that there were some concerns about utilities doing “quick-fix repairs” to restore service. For example, one utility contractor had wired around a meter, which could cause failure over time.
“No one knew if the equipment was compromised,” he said. “Are the lugs damaged? Is the drop from the utility damaged? Is a loose fitting going to cause arcing and sparking? The problem may not be apparent once the electricity's turned on.”
The danger of fire is also of real concern for the electrical contractors and homeowners, Tann said.
“After the storm, one of the fire departments here in town said we had more fires in the last five days than we had in the last five years,” he said.
Tann said his electrical team's first priority was to disconnect the power from the homes.
“For us to serve our customer the best, we felt like it was most important to get these homes physically disconnected before the power came back on in these neighborhoods,” he said. “There's a fire hazard if their service has been pulled down and the power company turns it back on.”
Very few of Tann's customers had backup generators, but they may think about getting them now that Kansas City has had two crippling ice storms in five years.
“We've had enough long-term power outages here that people after 1996 were talking seriously about it and then they forgot it,” Tann said. “This might make them think more about putting up a permanently installed backup system or a temporary backup system. They can roll a generator outside, bring a cord in, throw a transfer switch and be powered back on.”
McBride Electric's Yessen said the radio ads that his company ran several days after the storm drew many calls. “It's not like we're trying to corner the market,” he said. “But this could be a good time for homeowners to upgrade their equipment — particularly if homeowner's insurance policy covers it. We saw grounding problems in about 80% of the homes we've inspected. We've installed about 50 ground rods.
“I don't know if our company's going to turn any profit (on this work), considering transportation and per-diem costs. But we're happy to help out, and I think it shows people the quality of work we do.”
While McBride and Tann Electric worked directly with the homeowners, Capital Electric Line Builders reported directly to the utility companies, who had disaster plans in place in the event of an emergency, such as a severe ice storm.
“A utility company's disaster plan is a very comprehensive and involved plan that has evolved over many, many storms,” said Bob Asher, executive vice president of Capital Electric Line Builders, a Kansas City, Mo.-based power line contractor. “We learned a lot of big lessons back in 1984 and 1996.”
Disaster plans improve upon every revision, and Asher said it was the smoothest storm his company has ever worked.
“We knew it was coming, and we tried to schedule our people,” Asher said. “When they started having outages, they called us and we tried to find as many men as we could to send out. We didn't know how severe it was going to be until it got here. It was very hard when the freezing rain started falling down to analyze how many problems we had until it eased up a little bit.”
Capital Electric Line Builders and other local crews worked through the night to restore power to homes and businesses. Meanwhile, out-of-state contractors started traveling to Kansas City to help the utilities.
For the next week, the Capital Electric team restored primary circuits and secondary circuits. The team also placed new poles and installed new wires and terminations for the restoration of transmission circuits. Capital had a peak of 110 linemen working on the ice storm.
“We normally tried to hold it at 16 hours a shift, but sometimes it ran a little longer,” Asher said. “At one point, we actually ran some crews 24 hours around the clock. We tried to get them at least eight hours rest so if they work 16 on and eight off, it's a much safer situation than working them around the clock.”
Safety became paramount during the ice storm, which caused severe damage to trees and power lines. Some of Kansas City's historic tree-lined neighborhoods got hit the hardest. Asher said the trees were more responsible for bringing down the power lines than the ice.
“The biggest safety problem is what are called ‘hangers,’ which are tree limbs that haven't fallen yet, but are liable to at any moment,” Asher said. “If a crew would be working on a line and those hangers would let loose and fall, it could be very dangerous. Just normal line work, even in good weather, is extremely dangerous anyway. This just makes it more dangerous.”
Despite the danger, Capital Electric did not have any major injuries during the ice storm.
“While the danger factor increases considerably, I think the men become also inherently more safety conscious,” Asher said. “We're very lucky. I think we had one little smashed finger, but that was about all. Another big thing is vehicle accidents on the ice, but the ice melted off the streets pretty quickly.”
Asher said he expects the work to continue.
“When the emergency portion of it is over with, then there will be lots of work,” Asher said. “This is a major storm. This one may prove to be even bigger than 1984 and that was huge.”
The Kansas City branch of Graybar Electric Inc., St. Louis, Mo., supplied McBride, Tann, Capital and other contractors with connectors, anchors, conductors and other equipment.
“The storm showed the crucial relationships among distributors, manufacturers and contractors to service clients in an emergency,” said Helmuth Haug, Graybar national account manager for utilities.
Meanwhile, Thomas Hiemer, principal and owner of TM Sales, a rep agency in North Kansas City, Mo., with a focus on utility work, said his manufacturers worked around the clock to make the products that utilities were needed to restore power.
“We brought material in and allocated it to the various utilities and the various customers,” he said. “Thousands of lines and poles were down. To replace them, you need ground wire. A bare wire manufacturer worked through the weekend to get bare copper for grounding to the utilities.”
TM Sales also worked with the individual utility companies to find meters that met their specifications. “Every utility has their own version of how they want their meter socket and whether they want to have a fifth terminal or a separate lug,” he said.
He said manufacturers such as Milbank Manufacturing, Allen Wire and Tyco were extremely responsive. “Without them doing what they did, people would have been without power for a long time,” he said. “You can't turn the power back on in the home unless you've got a new socket to put the new meter in. You've got to ground all the transformers, and you can't do that without the ground wire, and you can't hook up the wire without the hardware. Plus, we supplied the overhead wire too.”
“Just from the ice storms we have had in the past, we knew that we needed to gear up, so we contacted our manufacturers and said, ‘Get ready. Can you put some extra manufacturing capacity just for our type of products?’ They did and it paid off big.”
He added that with some of the utility products that were in highest demand, his company did three to four months of business in four or five days.
“This was the storm of the century,” he said. “We've had them bad before, but not to this extent. With a large tree that has an inch and a half of ice on it, that could be an extra six tons of weight. When six tons comes down on top of a power line, it just rips everything right off the wall.”
Mark Gauldin, operations manager for Temple Electric's Kansas and Missouri locations said the storm repair work was a “whirlwind.”
“I didn't know what day it was. When you don't go home, you just don't know.” Gauldin said.
Temple Electric, a Dallas-based utility specialist, supplies KCP&L with about 80% of its material. During and after the storm, Temple had a person on site at KCP&L facilities and also with other utilities, including Western Resources and Utilicorp. It also pulled stock from its other locations around the country, including Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
Along with battling with power outages at three of its four Kansas City metropolitan locations, Temple Electric supplied utilities with transformers, wires, poles, meters, sockets, ties and wraps.
“We had enough materials for the first three days, and after that we basically moved material in and out,” Gauldin said.
The flow of material was not a problem, and Temple's customers were surprised how quickly the material got to them, he said. “Many people complained that KCP&L was slow in getting the power back on, but I don't think people have any idea what it takes to move materials. They had 300 crews working, and that's pretty phenomenal. This will be one that they'll be writing about in the record books.”
Gaulden said a well-timed acquisition has helped Temple Electric service the need for utility products. In addition, the company had also been getting ready to move to a larger facility and had already hired on new staff and rented moving trucks when the storm hit.
“A Kansas City utility distributor went bankrupt here in Kansas City several months ago, and we purchased their inventory and facility. There's probably a million dollars of material that we had to pull from. We really had a gold mine, but we didn't realize it at the time.”
Temple Electric wondered what they would do with all their inventory, but because of the ice storm, they moved a million dollars of material in two days.
One good thing about the ice storm — business sure has been good for local electrical people. “We're going to do a third of this year's business in a month's time,” he said. “The last time the ice storm hit people said, ‘We had a good year this month.’ That's about what it will amount to.”
For more ice storm coverage, visit CEE News' special online section at www.ceenews.com.
The ice storm not only knocked out power, but confused Kansas City homeowners, who wondered who to call for electrical repair work. Most didn't know where the utility's domain ended and a contractor's domain began.
“When people got their power turned back on in the area, they found that the utility told them that it is their responsibility to get their service hooked up,” said John Tann of Tann Electric. “The utility company might cut it loose and tie it back. That's when the homeowners call us and say, ‘We're without power and we need help.’”
KCP&L said that the meter housing and installation is the homeowner's responsibility. Meanwhile, other area utilities replaced damaged meter housings, but told homeowners to hire private contractors to do the installation.
“Some of the utilities reattached the service equipment themselves or contracted with their normal high-voltage contractors and line crews,” Tann said.
While local linemen and utility companies were not under obligation to fix broken masts, the workers often went ahead and repaired them to restore power to the homes.
“If it was not very severe and it just took a little bit to get it up and working, we didn't keep someone in the dark,” said Bob Asher, executive vice president of Capital Electric Line Builders, which had 110 employees working 16-hour shifts during the storm. “If it was totally demolished and torn clear off and would tie a crew up for several hours, we had to go ahead and bypass it.”
Kansas City Power and Light (KCP&L) offered the following explanation for why some homes in the same neighborhoods can be restored at different times or businesses are restored first because of their high-traffic locations along primary lines.
High-voltage electricity goes from a generating plant to a substation. Then it is sent to terminal poles to enter specific circuits. Electricity goes from terminal poles to primary poles via primary lines, or “backbones,” to then be sent over laterals to the secondary lines, which distribute it throughout neighborhoods. It finally arrives at individual meters from transformers that feed service drops.
In outages, restoration crews begin with primary lines, which can restore power to perhaps thousands of people. Then they move to lateral lines which can affect hundreds, secondary lines which affect dozens and finally to service drops at individual homes.
300 out-of-state utility crews from 12 different states helped restore power to Kansas City.
The utility crews worked 16-hour shifts.
Nearly 150,000 people still were without power 48 hours after the start of the ice storm.
About 350,000 customers were without electricity during the worst part of the outage.
About 500,000 trees were affected by the storm on public and private property.
The October 1996 snowstorm created similar tree damage and power outages. However, the entire storm recovery effort cost $5.8 million in 1996, while the cleanup for this year's storm could cost the city from $15 million to $20 million.