The Day from Hell

Last Monday was a Day from Hell which stretched into the Week from Hell, and so much of it is blamed on “Corporate America” and so much of it was preventable – not easily, perhaps, but it’s not like they didn’t see it coming. Even more chilling, it’s going to happen again.

Every year about this time, we have Spring storms. On Sunday afternoon, we had a Texas-sized Spring storm. Trees down all over the place, a crane fell on a building, you name it. It was pretty bad, even by our usual Spring storm standards. Also, it was fairly predictable that it would happen eventually.

So, just like every year when we have a Spring storm, the power went out. This is because all of our power lines are overhead and nobody trims back the trees which are going to fall during a Spring storm. Therefore, power lines come down.

Oncor

Also, just like every year, Oncor sends out a note “Power will be back tonight”, then moves it to “tomorrow” and then eventually just sets their voicemail to a self-congratulatory message about how hard their crews are working under such stressful conditions (it was beautiful out on Monday, the day after the storm, not that I could enjoy it), and how people from other States are coming in to help restore their patient customers’ power.

Here’s a thought, dumbasses – how about trying prevention, since your damn cure always takes days?

I hate Oncor. This is probably not a secret. When Texas deregulated electricity a few years ago, what they really did was create another set of middlemen that do the billing. They buy electricity in bulk and sell it to the consumer. Whoever can lower their costs, say, by having no customer service whatsoever or selling at various prices under different names, can provide the lowest price.

However, Oncor owns the lines, the generators and all the other components that fail every damn year during Spring storms. So, every “electric company” in my area of the State has a sign on their website that says, “Oh, yeah, when you have no power, don’t call us, call Oncor.”

Oncor is what happens when you have a monopoly. They just cash the checks and don’t really consider making real improvements to the infrastructure because that costs money. They just make repairs as needed, at whatever speed they can manage.

I was just in the Caribbean, on the island of St Maarten, which had been virtually wiped out by hurricanes a couple of years ago, and as they’re rebuilding their completely destroyed infrastructure, they’re burying their electrical wires, to help withstand a storm.

There’s a thought. If the lines were underground, trees would have a more difficult time falling on them. Dallas has their streets torn up constantly anyway, why not bury the damn power lines?

The real issue is that some bean counter at Oncor is looking at the statistics, and we had power 362 of the past 365 days (mostly.) So, we had a 99% uptime. That’s really good.

Here’s the problem – all those downtime statistics don’t recognize whether the downtime was all at once. If we had an hour here or there all year, that’s one thing. 72 hours in a row is when all the food goes bad, the dogs become more psychotic, and I end up in a hotel.

So, Oncor disappointed me, but didn’t surprise me.

The irony is that Oncor has their own weather people. Apparently, they can’t predict any bad weather, but they can recognize it after it hits. I can do that without a degree in meteorology – if you want to know if there was a Spring storm, look out and see if all the houses are dark in the middle of the afternoon. If you wait until evening, it’s even easier to diagnose.

Here’s why power is important to me. There are basically three things I do at home, besides cater to the dogs and appear to obey my wife. I eat, I work and I sleep. With Oncor’s courageous three to four-day repair cycle for a very predictable, almost annual occurrence, I can’t eat (we’ll be throwing out all the food in the refrigerator and the freezer), I can’t work (I need WiFi, which needs power – even though I’m pretty sure the phones are working because their lines are underground) and I can’t sleep (I use a C-PAP for my sleep apnea, and without it, I wake up constantly during the night. I spent Sunday night constantly dreaming I was drowning. It was not pleasant.)

So, I’m a wee bit bitchy as I’m starting to write this on Monday night, because the only way for me to get a decent night’s sleep – and get some work done in the morning, was to break down and get a hotel room. I am now at a work staycation, two miles from home, at $200 per night. The Spousal Unit is home with the dogs, who are freaking out about being in the dark all day.

I got the hotel room because a couple of other companies failed me. One I hadn’t dealt with in years, and one I deal with constantly.

Amazon

First, the one I deal with all the time – Amazon. How do you get around a dumbass power company? You purchase another independent power source. Amazon had a battery backup that other people used for their CPAPs, so that would be perfect. Sure, it’s $250 that Oncor should pay, but it would be delivered by Monday evening.

Wrong. Somewhere between hitting Enter and the first delivery update, the delivery day got changed to Friday. By Friday, even Oncor should have the power restored. (It actually arrived on Wednesday.)

So, great try, Amazon, but when I order something for same-day delivery, there’s a reason.

REI

When Amazon said “delivery on Friday”, it meant I could spend another sleepless night at home or find a generator or battery locally. We called everybody we could think about – and nobody had one, but then I remembered someone had mentioned “camping with my C-PAP”, so we went to REI. The one by our house was sold out (obviously, since I was not alone in this thought), but they found us one in Plano (which wasn’t affected by the storm), so we drove the 25 miles to the Plano store to pick it up.

We had selected this unit from the small list of units available specifically because it could be charged in the car – it has a 12-volt adapter. Since we have no working outlet to plug it in, we needed a backup power source without spending another $150 on a solar panel. This is partially on us, because we should have asked, but the 12-volt adapter is the one thing that is not included in the box.

We talked to Lee at the Plano store (who shouldn’t be at REI, he should be at Dick’s, because he is one) and his solution was to try to upsell me to the more expensive model because “those batteries come charged.” Then, he suggested just going to Walmart or McDonalds and plugging it in. Uh, I’m not going to spend eight hours in a McDonalds, Sparky. I’m on a low-carb diet.

So, Monday I bought two battery backup units in one day and one will be here Friday, and the other one could easily be charged in my home if Oncor restored the power – which was the problem in the first place.

So, REI Dallas, rock stars. REI Plano, not exactly helpful. (While Lee was trying to upsell me, Virginia called the Dallas store to see if they had the adapter, and they said “No.” She asked if they could see if any other store had one, and they said, “Sure, but the guy in Plano can do that.”

Then, it turned out the upgraded unit was available in Southlake, which is another 50 miles or so of driving, so we declined.

Sprint

The final culprit in my near-breakdown is Sprint, who must have lost some towers during the storm because our cell service was for crap yesterday. I couldn’t get anything done without being on WiFi. I couldn’t make calls, I couldn’t browse. If all I had was cell service, it wasn’t going to work.

By evening, the Sprint connections seemed to be improving, so maybe there is hope for humanity.

Actually, there is hope for humanity, because every dark cloud has a silver lining (or a lot of rain.)

Starbucks

Finally, some heroes, or at least companies that meet the challenge of a Spring storm in Dallas. Thanks to Starbucks for being open, having coffee, and having a web app, so I can walk in, see a line around the store, find a seat, log in and order my coffee, bypassing the line. By the time I explained to my boss online (over their free WiFi) that I was going to be out all afternoon with a doctor’s appointment and had no power or Internet at home, so I was taking the day off as vacation, my coffee was ready.

That was the final blow. I’m a contractor on my current project, so taking a day off basically means losing money. I really couldn’t see charging someone when I was probably going to be dozing off all day, and I was supposed to start a three-day medical test Monday afternoon – and was told to expect two hours to install the equipment.

So, I took a day off.

I got to the doctor’s office fifteen minutes early. They were closed for the day. The building had no power.

DoubleTree by Hilton

Every hotel around me was booked solid, because my neighbors were smart enough to avoid the four hours of touring the Metroplex while trying to find a generator and just moved out of their houses for a couple of days. By the time I conceded the fight and decided I needed a hotel to sleep and work, everything at a reasonable rate was taken.

I’m not saying DoubleTree is unreasonable, I’m just saying it’s a rate I’m used to paying with an expense account, not out of my own pocket. By the time I booked, what they had available was a Junior Suite. Not the most inexpensive room in the building, but if you’re going to suffer, suffer in style.

I love this place. I would stay here all the time, but it seems silly to stay in a hotel two miles from your house, and I can’t afford it all the time.

The staff is great, room service is fast and on-time in the mornings, the WiFi works, and I have a view of East Dallas out my floor-to-ceiling windows. Suffering should always been like this.

I had the room to myself most of the time, since my wife declared she “wasn’t leaving the dogs.” I’m not sure if this was to remind me of my place in the hierarchy or make me feel guilty, but it’s very hard to make me feel guilty when I’m looking out a 10th floor window and I already know where I rank.

She did spend afternoons at the hotel, which made working a wee bit difficult. I’m not used to the person in the next cubicle laughing at Facebook videos and memes. Well, I was at one point, but I’ve been home-officed for so long, those memories faded.

The hotel even had enough outlets so we could plug in the REI battery backup unit so my wife could have power for a reading lamp at home. She didn’t need it as badly as the dogs, who are apparently now afraid of the dark. (Actually, they’re afraid of the normal noises in the neighborhood they usually don’t hear – so much for dogs’ vaunted hearing ability – because the windows aren’t wide open to get a breeze in the house.)

We did not have the famous Doubletree cookies because my wife is minimizing carbs and she was watching me. After we got everything set up in the room and she went home because “she wasn’t leaving the dogs”, I forgot to go back downstairs and get one. Or six.

Epilogue

Just after I booked the hotel, Oncor texted me that the power was back. After just enough time for me to start cursing and reading through the cancellation policy, they texted and said it was out.

The Oncor auto-text messages went from a specific time estimate to “We are reviewing damage in your area.We will provide an update when your power will return.” which is the marketing version of “Beats the fuck out of us. Ask one of the power guys from another state. They seem to know what they’re doing.”

My favorite text from them is “Your power is restored. Please reply “N” if it is not.” Don’t you know?

The power finally came back Wednesday, so I went home after work that afternoon to help throw out all the food in the refrigerator and the freezer.

I spent one last night at the hotel so I could do my homework and because I didn’t have much faith the power would actually stay on. Also, it was a nonrefundable rate. (At one point, our power was back and the house across the street was still out.)

Valuations Update

So, I got an email this morning telling me that the Appraisal District had a counter-offer for my appraisal. It’s over three grand less than the original – so, not as much as I had asked, but a small victory over the government.

I accepted it so I don’t have to go meet the three old men that own the tax calculations and appraisals in person.

I consider this a victory for the little guy. I’d like to thank my Dad for telling me his protest story or I never would have tried it.

On the other hand, I live in one of the lower-value houses in the cul-de-sac. My neighbors may look down on me now. I’ll get over it.

Protest works. We should protest more.

Valuations

An interesting annual chore for a homeowner is reviewing the appraisal district’s valuation of your home. You would like a home to be worth a lot of money, so if you wanted to sell, you could turn a profit, buy a new house or retire to the Caribbean. However, you would like the appraisal district to think your house is worthless, since your taxes depend on their valuation.

In Dallas, the Dallas Central Appraisal District sends out letters every year, telling you how much they think your house is worth. They do this by pulling a number out of their ass when you purchase a home and then adding .001% below the maximum amount they can to your appraisal each year.

The State actually caps the amount your appraisal can rise over a period of time, but there are very good mathematicians at the appraisal district.

You can protest the appraisal, which basically means you have to tell the government your house is worth less than they think. Since they usually think it is worth less than the market does, this seems counter-productive, but it is worth the effort, since it may lower your taxes. For golfers or dieters, it will be easy, since you’re already used to giving a number much lower than reality.

My Dad actually went to the Appraisal District’s office one year to file a protest, and he is convinced they dropped their valuation just as a reward for his actually having found the office. Apparently, it was in the back of a fairly abandoned-looking strip mall in Garland, which is interesting since his house was in Dallas.

I was considering doing that, but it turns out it’s much easier now – you can file a protest online. This sounds easy, and it is, but there is a twist. You fill in the first page, choose a protest reason (“You said my house is worth too much!”) and click Next.

Then, comes the fun part. You get to upload your documentation. Since my documentation was my having said “Good Freakin’ Lord! They raise my taxes every year!”, I was stuck.

So, I pulled the valuations from all the houses on my street, threw out the higher valuations since they didn’t help my case, built a spreadsheet and showed my house is worth more than the median value on the street. Maybe it is, I say it isn’t. Mainly because that’s the only argument I can make. Plus, it’s in an Excel spreadsheet, so it must be true.

If you actually go through the pain of building a spreadsheet and uploading it to their website, the next page says you may be eligible for a settlement – how much do you think the house is worth?

Now, the first thought is to say the house is worth $15, but that’s not going to fly. So, since my Dad  had said he thought they knocked ten grand off his valuation just because he managed to find their office, I took eight grand off mine just because I managed to create a spreadsheet..

We’ll see what happens.

Better than new

Our kitchen is being remodeled. Remodel is from an ancient French word that means “probable insanity”.  We are using Ikea. Ikea is from a Swedish word that means “probable insanity.”

A kitchen remodel is the perfect project to prove the adage that the first 90% of the project takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% of the project takes the other 90% of the time.

All the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Since there are no innocents in a remodeling project, none of the names were changed.

Why do women swoon so over their kitchens? They have spent most of the past few millenia finding other things to do, specifically so they would no longer be spending time in the kitchen.

Here’s an interesting side-effect of completely removing a room from the house even for a short time – all of the house is affected, and not in a good way. Crap that was in the kitchen pretty much filled the spare room, which used to be where my grandson took his naps when he was over. So, last visit, he was driven around the block for a while to sleep. You can’t get to the bathroom off the kitchen any more, and the toilet is gone, anyway, since the floor is being redone (another side effect).  The dogs can’t be loose because the contractors tend to leave doors open, so they’re spending a lot of quality crate time (yes, they’re annoyed). You can’t use the garage because the driveway is blocked with a dumpster. I’m making coffee in the guest bathroom. The only advantage was that for a while, the refrigerator and a (new) microwave were in the family room, which made beer and snacks more accessible while watching TV.

On the bright side, I’m actually looking forward to the hour-long commute to the office every morning because it means I’m leaving the construction zone.

This project started because our kitchen floor was buckling. So, there was a leak somewhere. However, after the leak was fixed, there was still a ripple in the floor. Male solution: Fix the floor. Female solution: Fix the floor and while you’re at it, replace vinyl flooring with tiles, put in new cabinets, replace the counter-top, paint the walls a different color, and because it’s adjoining, maybe replace the carpet in the dining room. Oh, and maybe paint the hallway. The only thing that stopped the kitchen remodeling from progressing through the whole house (and an entire retirement account) was a hailstorm. Now, we need a new roof which is limiting the kitchen budget. Sometimes, an act of God is actually a good thing. Thank you for the hail, God.

Spousal Unit: “Don’t you love this tile? It reminds me of my Mom’s kitchen in her home long ago.” Me: “That looks like the tile in my grade school cafeteria.” So, who wins? I will now be having supper in my grade school cafeteria. This reminds me, I have to get the Spousal Unit a hairnet. Actually, considering it will be food I didn’t order prepared by a cranky Italian lady, it will be supper in my grade school cafeteria. All I need now are some spitwads. And detention.

Any time a woman finds something that reminds her of “long ago”, it will be in a section of the store called “retro”. Retro is from an Indonesian word meaning “grossly over-priced.”

Spousal Unit: “Should the walls be red or black?” This is an unwinnable situation, unless one really prefers red or black (Me? Notsomuch.) So, I don’t care. However, you cannot say you don’t care in a project of this magnitude – not because you know your opinion is going to be ignored anyway, but because then it looks like you don’t care. (Think about that for a moment.) However, I really don’t care – I just want Bubba, Joe-Bob and their tools out of my house and their monster truck and mini-dumpster out of my driveway. I don’t really care what color the walls are. The only time I’m in the kitchen is to make coffee, and that means I’m asleep, so my eyes are closed. Just put the coffee pot back in the same place it was before the remodel and nobody gets hurt.

We first priced a couple of professional remodeling services. Spousal Unit’s estimate: $15,000. My estimate: $30,000. Actual estimate: $37,000. I can’t give that much blood in a year, so it was off to Ikea. (Spousal Unit’s estimate: $10,000. My estimate: $25,000. Still open. Let’s just say hers was low.)

Ikea is a Scandinavian firm that produces functional furniture. Saying furniture is “functional” is like saying a girl has a good personality.

Ikea is inexpensive, mainly because they don’t produce products, they produce kits. You get a flat box of parts and an instruction sheet, whether you’re buying a kitchen cabinet or a child’s set of toy blocks. Actually, I’m not sure the kitchen cabinets aren’t made from the child’s set of toy blocks. Many of their products are just assemblies of smaller products, so the instructions are “get two of these boxes, and one of those boxes. Assemble as shown on diagram.”

I am not a handyman. I cannot use tools. So, the mechanically inept hire someone to do the job for them. Ikea has suggestions for companies to assist you. Well, a company. If you pay them a slight extra charge, they will act as a general contractor.

In the USA, a general contractor manages a project and assigns specific tasks to other contractors. I know this, because I spent a week on jury duty when a general contractor was the defendant in a lawsuit. In Scandinavia or Ethiopia or wherever Ikea is located, a general contractor apparently only does the odd jobs that nobody else does. They also listen patiently to the woman of the house railing about the ineptitude of the other contractors. You get to actually do project management yourself, therefore saving money. This is why their general contractor service is relatively cheap – he doesn’t actually do anything to manage the project. I suppose I should be grateful we didn’t get a general contractor kit in a flat box with an odd Scandinavian name on the side. I would still be assembling him.

Our cabinet installer is a company named Traemand. They specialize in cabinet installations – their website says so. Unfortunately, they are installing European style cabinets in a US kitchen, which apparently is hard (their website says so). I assume this means they use metric measurements, since their first floor plan had one cabinet blocking half a doorway. This measurement (ironically) was done by a subcontractor who was actually working for the same company that is our general contractor. So, why not just have the general contractor do everything? Ikea split the jobs up, so it is not allowed. What happens if you just buy all the boxes of parts and hire someone else to assemble them? It’s not warranted. This makes no sense to me, but I’m not Swedish.

After the cabinet into the doorway design was corrected (strangely, we didn’t want a doorway blocked), the second set of measurements didn’t seem to match the actual kitchen measurements. So, we finally had the general contractor re-measure. He must have used an American tape measure, because this time, the plan actually made some sense and fit the kitchen.

It occurred to me that there is an old adage “Measure twice, cut once.” I guess nobody told Traemand that “measure twice” implied getting the same number both times.

Of course, the actual installation didn’t allow the existing refrigerator to fit under an installed cabinet. After the installers “made” it fit by lowering the feet on the refrigerator, the cabinet doors above the refrigerator won’t open. Apparently, this is a strange model of refrigerator that has hinges on the doors and they are on the top. Who knew? So, we’re waiting for a new cabinet to be delivered. Yes, Traemand, the cabinet technically fits. However, it’s useless if it doesn’t open, so it needs to be fixed. Finally, they installed the existing double oven at Munchkin-level, so the lower oven will be at the proper height when the Spousal Unit has her scoliosis kick in. In the meantime, if the lower oven is used where it is, the dogs are going to learn the hard way not to sniff things, and grandchildren will learn “don’t touch” on their own. Other than that, it’s perfect. Oh, except we need a new kitchen table because the new cabinet takes up more space than the one it replaced, so the table won’t fit. Well, the table will fit, but people can’t actually sit around it.

An aside on the double oven – many women lust after a double oven. Women love their double ovens. They use them one day a year on Thanksgiving and the rest of the time, they just lovingly gaze at them while re-heating leftovers in the microwave or toaster oven, because using the oven heats the entire kitchen. You know, a guy gets a lot of grief for wanting a 70″ TV to watch the Super Bowl, but at least you can watch other shows on it during the year. How often do you really need two ovens? Sheesh.

So, Traemand may be installers, but they are certainly not designers or measurers. Actually, I will be happy to say that they are installers if the cabinets are all still on the walls in a week or so.

Dear Ikea, it is staggering to me that any company could certify another company to do product installations when their employees can’t use a tape measure successfully. I would have thought that would have been question one on the installation certification test, or at least in the first five, after “What’s a cabinet?” or “Which end of the screwdriver do you hold?” I may be mechanically inept, but I know how to measure how tall something is. 

So, we have a general contractor that’s not managing the project, an installer that can’t measure, and a different company for each piece of the rest of the puzzle, all assembling items purchased from random companies throughout the Metroplex. How can this not go smoothly?

Needless to say, the Spousal Unit is approaching a level of cranky not seen since I managed to miss her birthday, our anniversary and Valentine’s Day all with the same business trip. (They’re all within two weeks, so it really wasn’t that difficult. Come to think of it, I was gone less time on that trip than this kitchen project has taken.)

Also, it is taking so freaking long to get the project done, that we’re pretty much used to eating out every night. So, I’m not sure the new kitchen will get that much use, although I’ve been promised it will. (The male version of this is a riding mower sitting in the garage while the neighbor’s kid is doing the lawn.)

A lesson to anyone wanting to outsource a room remodel – get a general contractor and a designer. Write a much larger check than Ikea requests. Pick cabinets out of their catalog. Don’t special-order anything. Go to France for a month.

I heard a loud crash as I was writing this. Luckily, it was one of my grandson’s toys falling off the table in the family room. So, all cabinets are still attached to the walls. So far. I hope it doesn’t turn out that they only hold European-style dishes, pots and pans.

Annual Maintenance

It’s interesting that every time a maintenance person arrives to work on any of our major appliances, they disapprove of the way the appliance was previously serviced or installed. Many times, they violently disapprove. It’s a constant. It is even going to happen if the repairmen are from the same firm. I have not had someone criticize his own work, but it is only a matter of time.

Now, I’ve been in software for almost 30 years, and I’ve worked with some idiots, but I don’t think I’ve ever asked a customer, “Hmm. Who wrote this crap?” At least, not out loud.

Our annual HVAC inspection was this afternoon. We get a free inspection once a year as part of a maintenance contract.

You would think since the inspection is free, it would be a five-minute, cursory glance, followed by “Everything’s looking good!” and a quick exit. This surprisingly tends to not be the case.

We get very thorough inspections. This is good, except there always seem to be semi-major problems, which is bad. I suppose finding the problem is better than not finding it, but it’s a bit distressing there were any problems to find. This year, there was condensation leaking in the heater and there was a long tear in the plenum.

Now, it is possible the plenum tore itself sometime between last inspection and now. Perhaps a disgruntled employee did it, although this is unlikely since we have no employees.

My guess? Last year, when the filter for the whole house air filtration system was being replaced, somebody pushed it just a wee bit too hard.

As for the leak, the repairman said the clamp was in the wrong place on one of the pipes. I’m pretty sure the clamp was moved during last year’s inspection, as well.

There are always two constant questions in an inspection – “When did you get this unit? We don’t sell these any more, we have OtherBrand which are much higher quality and last longer.” and “Who was here last year? We have really top-notch people, but, uh, you know, some can make mistakes.”

[Edit: It occurred to me that if repairmen were all Southern ladies, they would be saying “Bless her heart.” A lot.]

So, the company sold me inferior equipment and is supporting it with amateurs. I feel better now. What exactly are your credentials?

I’m just glad to know this time, it’s fixed for sure.

Until next year’s inspection.