Power outages leave residents in the cold

March 2, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

HYDE SQ.—The Valentine’s Day ice storm cut power to almost 900 households in the Sheridan/Cranston streets area for as long as 11 hours—just part of a string of outages there that has some residents fuming.

“I have a five-week-old infant at home and had to stay in a hotel on Feb. 14,” wrote one resident in an e-mail to the Gazette.

The area is scheduled for a new and improved electrical system this year that most of Jamaica Plain already received. Work will begin sometime in the spring.

“Some of the upgrade work will help the area we’re talking about in Hyde Square,” said NSTAR spokesperson Mike Durand.

He said NSTAR is also considering making temporary patches to the existing system, but is weighing that against the additional planned outages such work would inflict on customers.

Several residents complained that it’s been hard to get explanations for the recent outages, particularly from NSTAR’s automated phone system. Complaints included the system telling callers that the long outage would be fixed quickly, and second-time callers being told that calling more than once is not allowed.

Durand said those complaints appear to be misunderstandings of the system’s messages, which actually provide continually updated outage information and offer such features as automatic call-back. Often the reason and repair time for an outage are not instantly known, he pointed out. The system was developed after 2005 controversy over outages in JP and other areas, in part with a focus group formed by the Mayor’s Office.

“The phone system is extremely user-friendly,” Durand said.

“We think NSTAR has taken steps to improve communications and the system,” said Jim Hunt, the city’s chief of Environmental and Energy Services, who led a call for improved NSTAR communications at that time. “But as it proves here, there are still gaps in the system that can lead to frustrations—and well-warranted frustrations.”

“The jury’s still out as to whether we’re fully satisfied with NSTAR customer communication,” Hunt said.

City Councilor John Tobin said he is concerned that NSTAR didn’t notify the city about such a long outage during such extreme weather, saying that a community center or other shelter could have been opened. Durand said NSTAR’s policy is to inform cities of such outages, but couldn’t say whether that happened on Feb. 14.

“Hopefully those mates made their own warmth,” Tobin joked about the Valentine’s Day date. But outages can be serious for young children and seniors, he said, noting that outages regular hit his parents’ West Roxbury home, where his mother runs a day-care service.

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, who organized a meeting with about 100 outraged residents during the 2005 outages, said his own Armstrong Street home was hit with the recent outages. He said he was able to get an explanation from the phone system.

His concern, he said, is “as always, that they respond quickly” to customer complaints.

Reasons and upgrades
The area has been hit with several significant outages since at least last summer. One in January involved a piece of faulty substation equipment, NSTAR said.

The Valentine’s Day outage, which started around 2 p.m., almost certainly was caused by the snow and ice storm.

“Ultimately, it was a piece of equipment that malfunctioned in a manhole,” said Durand, explaining the service tunnel flooded with rain, which then froze. “It was something that literally some of our most experienced employees had never seen before,” he said, adding that workers had to use power washers blasting hot water to get through the ice.

Of 894 households affected, Durand said, about half had power restored within 3.5 hours. The rest were out for about 7.5 to 10.5 hours, depending on how directly they were affected.

On Feb. 17, the area was out again for about 8 hours starting at about 9:30 p.m. “That was also an issue in a manhole,” Durand said, explaining that the exact reason is unclear, but was “likely due to residual storm damage.

“Even though both [February outages] were storm-related, we’re aware of other issues in that area,” Durand said.

For the past few years, NSTAR has been converting JP’s electrical system to a higher-voltage capacity and in a circuit arrangement that minimizes widespread outages.

Most of JP has already been upgraded, and outage reports have plummeted. However, the work will not be finished until the end of this year. The recently affected area—roughly between Paul Gore and Boylston streets—has yet to be upgraded.

Also still awaiting upgrades are most of Pondside and a strip of Sumner Hill right behind Centre Street. A map and other upgrade information is on NSTAR’s web site at www.nstaronline.com.

Sánchez said he’s concerned that outages could become more frequent in the spring, when power usage rises with air conditioners, as has happened in other pre-upgrade areas.

Communications
NSTAR’s outage hotline at 1-800-592-2000 now offers several “sophisticated” features, Durand explained.

The automated service provided continual updates on the length and cause of outages. For long outages, it can automatically call customers back and tell them that power is restored; if it in fact isn’t, the customer can report it by pushing a single button.

Of course, the system cannot report a cause until it is known, and outage lengths are always educated guesses.

When told that some callers reported a system message saying power would be restored in two to three hours on Valentine’s Day, when in fact it lasted much longer, Durand said, “That should not have happened.” But, he added, it might be a misunderstanding.

He noted that at first, the system offers a generic message saying that most outages are fixed in one to two hours. The message is then updated for longer outages. “When we get more information, we add it,” Durand said, explaining that updated information might have been unknown or not yet posted when the customers called.

As for complaints that the system didn’t let people call in a second time, Durand explained that there is a cut-off on reporting the same incident from the same number. “If you don’t restrict the number of times that happens…you get a backlog of orders” that actually slows response time, he said.

But second-time callers are asked if they have new information about the outage. “It really gives them the opportunity to update the information,” Durand said.

And simply calling in for updates on length and cause is allowed. “People can always call in again,” he said.

Some residents complained that they couldn’t get an actual employee on the phone. The system is totally automated. Durand said that during major outages, it is impractical to have enough phone workers to handle all the calls.

A larger complaint is that residents have been unable to find out why previous outages happened. During the 2005 outage controversy, Hunt repeatedly insisted that NSTAR needed to explain outages after they happened, so that residents would feel less frustrated.

At that time, NSTAR said it would not provide post-outage explanations, and temporarily stopped responding to Gazette requests for such information.

Durand noted that outage causes are now available during the outage on the phone system, which did not exist in 2005. During major storms, NSTAR also posts general outage information on its web site, though it does not list specific streets.