Sunday, March 7, 2010

Power Problems

Some months back, there was great celebration in Ouaga when the power lines bringing electricity up from Ivory Coast were finally completed. No more power cuts! Yay! Yeah, right.

They started again last month, just 15-20 minutes long at first. But as the hot season progressed and the need for A/C increased, the cuts got longer and longer. Now they can last anywhere from 2-6 hours. So what was the big deal with this power line from Ivory Coast? According to someone from SONABEL (Burkina's national electric company), Ivory Coast doesn’t even have enough power for itself, never mind sending any extra to us here in Burkina! But that wasn’t really the point, you see. The important thing is that there was an agreement to do this project between the two countries. And it got done. Which means improved relations between them. Whether it actually works or not is a secondary issue.

So what are we to do when it’s 40-45 degrees Celsius outside and the power is cut? Well, there are backup generators. We have one on the SIL Centre and it’s been a real life-saver. However, once in a while we do run into problems even with a backup generator. Like last Friday. Somebody miscalculated or left things too late and the generator ran out of fuel right at the hottest part of the day!

Getting more fuel, however, was the easy part. Had it been a gasoline engine, we could have simply filled it up and started it again. But this is a diesel engine. When diesel engines run out of fuel, they get air in the fuel lines, and this air has to be purged from the lines before the motor will run again. Unfortunately, no one on our Centre knew how to do that.

So I called the diesel mechanic who had done the regular maintenance on our generator for the past several years. He said he’d be there within the hour. I should have known better. Fortunately, the power cut ended before too long. Nevertheless, I kept calling and calling him. We needed backup power because we had no idea when the next power cut would occur or how long it would last. No answer. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., I got him and once again he said that he was on his way. An hour later, still nothing. So we called again. And at this point, for some unknown reason, the mechanic flat-out refused to come!

Now it was 5:30 on a Friday night, and we had a three-day long weekend ahead of us. We could not go that long without backup power. But where in the world were we going to find a diesel mechanic who would be willing to come and help us at that time of the day and week?

Our Administrative Services Director began making phone calls to his connections, pleading with them to give him the name and number of someone who could help us. Finally, after a number of tries, he reached a mechanic that was willing to come. And within a couple of hours, the generator was ready to go again. Whew!

I think we need a backup system for our backup system.

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