The Big Rayo

It all started around 3PM on 16 September. Dino, my “do everything man” came into my office to talk about an issue he had with what he was working on. There had been a bit of off and on rain but no big storm. Dino leaves at 4PM and gets paid on Fridays. I went to look at the computer screen to see what time it was but the glance was interrupted by the brightest, loudest lightening strike I have ever seen or heard.

The power was now off. OK but so was the computer which should not have happened. It and some other things are on a world-class UPS with PV solar input and 24 Volt at 400 Ampere Hour batteries. By the time I was headed to the remote control and indicator panels for various components of the system, grid power came back on — but not the things on the UPS.

There are three small remotes on the kitchen wall.

  • The battery state monitor was showing everything normal with the batteries about 80% charged.
  • The PV controller was showing that it was charging the batteries.
  • The inverter controller was dark — not showing anything. Pushing the power button did nothing.

The system is in the mini-basement below the kitchen. Clearly it was time for a trip there. Access is through a panel in the floor. As soon as I opened it could smell “burnt electronics”. It was a bit different that cheap burnt electronics — like there was a protective coating on the circuit boards but I have burned up enough electronics in my life to know.

I checked the AC line circuit breaker. Not tripped. In retrospect that was unnecessary as the system normally runs in inverter mode off the batteries so it wasn’t even using line power when the rayo struck. I checked the battery breaker and it was on. Pushed the power button and nothing. At this point I lost hope — clearly the inverter had died or, more accurately, had been murdered.

I opened the access door to the AC connections on the inverter. Nothing burned there which didn’t surprise me as it is just some terminals for fairly big wires. With circuit breakers on both the input and output, it was unlikely a wire would burn up before a breaker would trip.

The next step was to get the Internet back up as any communication about repair or replacement of equipment needed to be done over the Internet — either by email or using the SIP phone. So, I went down to the bodega to get two small UPSs that I had recently taken out of service. I got them hooked up — one for the Internet radio and router and one for the computer equipment. I also got tools and parts to bypass the inverter — that is, connect the input power directly to the output breakers.

Less than half an hour later power was back on the computer and Internet equipment. But, no Internet. So, I switched from electric troubleshooting to electronic troubleshooting. The computer could not talk to the router. I traced that to two burned-out ports on the Ethernet switch. I moved the cables to functioning ports and I could now talk to the router but still no Internet. The lights on the router indicated there was no connection to the radio.

I checked the cables and they were connected but the light on the power over Ethernet adapter was blinking. That usually means a short. I switched PoE adapters and same thing. So, apparently the radio was the third victim or the rayo. As it is not my radio, all I could do was call the IPS. No answer so I left a message. It is now 8AM and still no response.

My project for today was going to be to re-configure the MPPT controller and batteries for a 12 Volt system and hook up an old 2000W inverter. I will just run the computer, Internet equipment and gas water heater off it — not the stove and refrigerator — so the PV input will be sufficient to keep the batteries charged. Then, when I have Internet, I will go on my trek to get things back to normal. But, there are more distractions.

The electric porton lock is not working. There is a power supply mounted on the inside of the porton with a cable that runs to a transformer on the wall. As I was heading down to investigate, Juan — my less than brilliant worker — asked “why doesn’t the automatic light in the street work?” I tried to be a bit civil and then went to the breaker box in the bodega. One was tripped. I assume the light now works and had hoped the porton problem was solved as well. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

After a bit of analysis I figured out the flexible cable that runs to the power supply was damaged. As it is just telephone line cord and not watching when you open the big porton could pull on it, I figured it would die someday. Not having the wire I really need I did a temporary hookup. There is power there and the battery seems to now be charging but it appears the electronics got toasted. So, add that to the fried equipment from the rayo. It’s not really expensive but it comes from China so it will be a month or two without the electronic lock.

One surprise here is that things which got fried were not directly connected to the power line:

  • The inverter, while connected, was not in the mode where grid power was running it.
  • The Internet radio is connected through a PoE injector. The injector is not damaged but the radio is.
  • The porton lock runs off a battery that is charged from the grid but there is the wall wart and then a complicated charger circuit (which I built) to properly keep the NiMH battery charged.
  • The Ethernet switch runs off a wall wart and all the equipment connected to it was powered by the inverter.

Note that when I bought Casa Colonial, one of my priorities was to improve the electrical infrastructure. Actually, the right word is “fix”. It was a disaster — wired by a totally incompetent local electrician. And, I did. I put in a real breaker panel — replacing a 100 Ampere fused switch and a whole assortment of two-breaker boxes. I added the missing ground rod. Dino and I rewired all the units downstairs so each one had its own circuit and there were actually three wires going to the three-wire outlets. And so much more. So, there really was no “excuse” for what happened.

There is (I assume) a 24KV power line in front of the house. The transformer which feeds the house is on the pole there. While I didn’t see what the rayo struck I am guessing it was the 24KV line. Normally there is a grounded wire running on top of such power lines so the lightening will strike it rather than a hot line. The place for the wire is there but there is no wire on it. So, Energuate gets some of the credit for the disaster.

Life goes on. Tomorrow will be the day to deal with the temporary 12 Volt power system. And, maybe someday the ISP will show up to deal with their fried radio.

Monday Update
The good news is that yesterday I got three of the four batteries (I lack one cable to make it four) wired in parallel and the PV controller reconfigured to charge 12 Volt batteries. The old, rusty 2000 Watt inverter is running fine powering the computer equipment. While it would run everything I decided not to connect the refrigerator and stove to it. This way, the PV panels, even on cloudy days, will keep the batteries topped up so I don’t need to install a 12 Volt charger and come up with a plan for when it needs to operate.

As for the ISP, I called them again this morning — clearly before their office opened — and left another message. We’ll see.

I still continue to be surprised at what was and was not damaged. There are four televisions, four refrigerators, a stove, multiple computers, a printer, … Everything which is toast was not directly connected to the electric grid with the exception of the inverter which I previously pointed out was operating off batteries, not the grid. We don’t even have a burned out light bulb but lots of things toasted which were not on the grid. Time to study a bit more on EMP — when I have a connection to the Internet so I can do it.

10AM — The ISP dude called. He doesn’t have a replacement radio. Will call within two to three hours with “a plan”. As I wait those two to three hours (clearly that was Guatemala time as it is now 1:30PM) I thought a bit more about the radio. It is clamped to a metal railing on the balcony — which is not grounded. What a great antenna for EMP. I decent observation which makes me want to make sure any of my own radios get bolted to something which is grounded.

10AM the next day — No call. Too bad but I am not surprised. Spend two hours somewhat fixing the porton lock. That is, dealing with what is either a manufacturing defect or, more likely, an installation defect. I figure tomorrow I will go looking for a real Internet connection. The good news is that the 12 Volt inverter seems to be doing fine.

Tuesday w/Internet
OK, 1621. I now have Internet (and hundreds of messages to read). The Internet port on the router is toasted so I “loaned him” a router. Then he explained to me that as it was not “an equipment failure” that I have to pay for the radio. Let’s just say I am not amused — particularly seeing as I paid about four times the real price of the radio when it was installed less than a year ago and now he only wants about 150% of the price of the radio.

Anyway, lots to sort out. Details once I get caught up.

One thought on “The Big Rayo

  1. We continue to find things toasted by the rayo. They include two TV power adapters, one light outside the terraza and the motion sensing light in the street.

    The good news is that the inverter/charger has been repaired and is on its way back to Guatemala.

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