~ More Petulant Thoughts About Energy

As I await the arrival of a service technician to fix my Kenmore oven and range, whose electronics apparently fried during a recent brownout, I’m pondering the likelihood of a future marked by frequent recurrences of this kind of life-hiccup.



We’ve been without a stove for a week. A two-hour brownout caused various devices in the house to shut down and then flail like landed trout, trying to come back to life. Most things came through this intact. But the stove’s will to live and fight its way out of the induced coma was so strong that it apparently burned out two different circuit boards clicking on and off, eventually settling irretrievably into something called Sabbath Mode.

This event worries me because we’ve had two power failures in the last week, and every damn thing in the house is electronic. Like NutraSweet, silicon is a ubiquitous element of middle class life. Can all these solid state ganglia that run our lives withstand frequent power drops and surges? Because I’m imagining these interruptions becoming increasingly common as utilities, like everyone else, fret through the ongoing — let’s say normalization — of fuel prices in the USA, relative to those of the rest of the world.

I’m reminded of the 2005 rolling blackouts in California. Those were caused by the failure of infrastructure to keep up with demand, but it wasn’t as though transformers were blowing up on every corner. It was a failure of the market to keep up an adequate supply — a failure of economics. Do continuing rises in fuel costs mean that we’re headed for more such supply side failures, and more rolling blackouts, this time not limited to specific markets like California’s?

Given the friction generated every time utilities attempt to raise their rates, this strikes me as likely, and suggests another prognostication: There are lots of appliance service calls in your future and mine, as power drops and spikes cause seizures in more and more of our cherished devices, whose innards may turn out to be more vulnerable than anyone’s recognized before.

Does Kenmore know this? Does anyone know? Is anyone tracking the failure rates of personal electronics? (How many American homes have uninterruptible power supplies? Is that a new market opportunity for someone?) Is anyone making market projections for replacement boards?

And what are the customer service implications? I mean, I’m not having a good experience today. The technician is running 3 to 4 hours behind schedule (maybe more — I’ll know when he eventually shows up). I do know that four replacement parts were due to be sent here prior to this call and only two got here. I’m wondering why I had to tell him this — isn’t he supposed to know where all these parts are before he shows up?

Maybe this is going to be a typical customer experience with electronics-dependent appliances from here on. Maybe some of these things, for that very reason, aren’t worth the trouble to own. There are lots of days when I miss experiences like turning a knob and having a blue flame pop up to heat my frying pan. How well an individual manufacturer’s products hold up under changing power conditions could become a point of differentiation when it comes time to buy a washing machine or a stove or a phone system.

(Phones…it used to be that when the power went out, the one thing you could still rely on was the phone. Not any more — the line’s still alive, but the phone now is a complex console and remote handset system stuffed with electronics and sucking power. I’ve already had two such systems eviscerated by lightning strikes. Today the lifeline is my cell phone…if it happens to be charged.)

I never was much of a gadget guy, and I tend to use only the most basic features of the electronics I do own. Maybe one of the little side benefits of the fuel cost crisis is that my attitude about these things will be vindicated. It feels that way today.


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