Findings from a Frigid Fiasco

\"\"

Last week was a bit of a mess in Texas. Record cold weather combined with good ol’ human incompetence to make for a true disaster.

Cold down to 0° F, especially combined with snow and ice, will always pose a problem for Texas. It’s an outlier event, and we’re not really used to it. There’s limited road cleaning equipment, and folks ‘round here don’t know how to drive on ice.

But the real excitement started when a rush on natural gas led to the power grid getting stretched. That led to partial blackouts, with some areas losing power for days. Which led to homes and businesses unable to run heaters. Which led to burst water pipes from the hard freeze. And which also led, at least here locally, to a water treatment plant shutting down. Which led to my water being shut off for over a day. 

My house didn’t lose power, and we were able to mitigate the water shutoff without too much trouble. We made out far better than many. In fact, my boys would say the only really bad part of the week was when our internet was down for about a day. Internet service is more important than potable water, it seems.

A lot of folks learned some lessons the hard way last week, though.

Redundancy Matters

When we learned our water supply was at risk, we filled a lot of pots and started boiling (pressure was already low, so they advised that). We also had a good supply of bottled water in our garage. We filled our bathtubs with water so we’d still be able to flush toilets, and we eyed our yard full of snow as an emergency reserve. I even scoped out some good spots in the yard where neighbors wouldn’t be able to see me pee (thankfully it didn’t come to that). 

In other words, we had plans, and backup plans, and backups to those backups. 

If only the State of Texas or our local water authority had embraced that concept. Texas has made the terribly misguided decision to isolate its power grid from the rest of the country so those bureaucratic Feds can’t tell us what to do (like winterizing our power equipment…). ‘Cause when you’ve got a unique product like electricity where it’s critically important to pool supply and demand and have backup sources, of course you should isolate yourself.

And I learned that my fair burg gets all of its water from the City of Fort Worth, so when their treatment plant went down, our supply was completely cut off. During the scramble to restore water my city found a way to do an emergency connection to a different city. I wonder how much easier and cheaper it would have been to make that Operations 101 connection in peaceful times?

Don’t Pick Up Nickels in Front of a Steamroller

I was shocked to learn that many a person in Texas has decided to skip a negotiated rate for their electricity service and remain exposed to wholesale electricity prices. Normally that would save you a solid $.05 or so per kWh, but early last week, when wholesale prices surged more than 10,000%, not so much. Some consumers are facing $5,000-$10,000 electricity bills as a result. I kinda feel sorry for them, but sometimes, when you gleefully and greedily pick up nickels in front of a steamroller, you get squashed. 

Be Prepared

Many people are facing massive costs from the winter weather. Hopefully insurance will help, but paying a full deductible still hits hard. 

The biggest expenses I’ve heard are from flood damage when frozen pipes burst and flooded the house. But many people had burst pipes and just paid a few hundred dollars to repair them. What drove the massive difference in costs?

Some people knew how to shut off their water main, and some people didn’t. When it starts raining in your house because a pipe burst in your attic, it’s pretty important to turn off the water fast. And despite me being one of the top personal finance bloggers in my neighborhood, it appears that many local folks have missed my brilliant post on Utility Shut Offs. The only thing wrong with my post is that I massively underestimated the value of quickly shutting off your water main – last week showed it can be worth several thousand dollars. 

Don’t Own A Pool

You may have heard that I’m ever-so-slightly against pool ownership.

But last week made the case even more. People were desperately running their pool pumps 24/7, and even so they still needed to go hack the ice that was forming. The real magic happened if you lost power – then your pool and its expensive equipment froze solid. Many homeowners are facing thousands of dollars of damage as a result.

I too will have a pool damage expense: our HOA pools lost some equipment. But I’ll owe just a tiny fraction of that expense since the cost will be divided across the entire community. Most of whom own their own backyard pool, of course.

We were very lucky to make out with no major problems or damage, but I’m concerned that it was exactly that: luck. People who lost power were hit hard, and some of them lost their lives. 

Winter weather can be destructive, but the gravest concern from last week is that poor planning and incompetence turned a bad winter storm into a complete disaster. I would insert my normal sarcastic comment about how I’m sure we’ll learn our lesson this time, but the local and state-wide mood is a bit dark for that right now. 

9 thoughts on “Findings from a Frigid Fiasco”

  1. Didn’t Texas already have among the highest property and casualty insurance rates in the country, what with the hail, hurricanes and tornadoes? That’s some pretty sophisticated modeling if they’d already factored in the risk of a poorly designed/secured electrical grid. The insurance companies aren’t going to be paying for all of those pools, pipes and drywall either.

    1. I agree their models couldn’t have seen this risk, but whether they pay or not will just depend on the contract (and how hard you fight against their delay & deny tactics…). It sounds like some neighbors are making successful claims, and I imagine there will be a whole host of people who get denied. Just another chapter in the joys of home ownership.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Happy to have you back to posting 🙂

    Looking at how you described the sequence of events looks like the domino to chaos, with one event triggering another one and that the people were not aware of the consequences. From what you described, which one you would give the government an “Incompetent” stamp and which one you see as “bad luck”?

    Funny to read about the kids concerning the internet. Each of us really has different priorities :). I’m here thinking how long would take for them to trade the internet for potable water…

    Happy to hear that, despite all the chaos, you had minor damages.

    I have to read your post on the Utilities Shut off. I only know the electricity here, no idea about the water and the gas. If a water pipe broke I have no clue how to stop it, and only thinking about it makes me creepy.

    I wish you all warm weather and a fast recovery from the latest events.

    Cheers!

    1. Hi Odysseus

      It’s good to be back – I’ll need to keep the routine going, though I may make some lighter posts like this one to keep the effort from becoming too much.

      The State of Texas deciding to separate its electrical grid from the east or west U.S. was pure incompetence. I am always surprised when U.S. state governments view the U.S. Federal government as some super evil bureaucracy when they themselves are a less competent, less resourced, less effective bureaucracy. My local water power going down was more of bad luck perhaps – a small suburb such as mine should not be expected to build such redundancy, but it would have been nice.

      However, one thing is certain: China and Russia (and any other potential U.S. enemies) will be studying the events in Texas closely. The fact that the entire U.S. power grid is so old and at risk from cyber attack will be very interesting to them when they consider the massive upheaval and financial damage suffered in Texas from this event. There was once a time these events would be a matter of urgent national security, but it seems that time has passed.

      Please confirm all of your utility shut offs, and then we will hope that you will never, ever need to use that knowledge in an emergency! 🙂

      Thank you for the wishes and the note

      Paul

      1. Hi Paul!

        I read the post from 2015 and did my homework. Took me some minutes to find the water and the gas and I was only imagining under an emergency situation how damaging that could be.

        I hope never to use them, but at least I know where they are. I tried to remember if the property owner showed it to Penelope or myself when we rented and I could not remember. If I was a landlord this definitively would be something that I would let the tenant know.

        Concerning what happened in Texas, I was checking this plot from The Economist and the situation does not look to be getting better over time.

        https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/03/01/power-outages-like-the-one-in-texas-are-becoming-more-common-in-america

        I hope the government sees this as a key point to improve. The same way we looked for the utility shut-off before really need to use it, they have to see this sample as something that can be much worst if not fixed.

        Let’s wait for the best.

        Have a nice week. Cheers!

  3. We witnessed total incompetence regarding the power grid and, closer to home in SL, neglect for not making sure the Ft. Worth water district was prepared for the freezing weather (I’m sure a simple inquiry could have been made) to minimize the likelihood of valves freezing. Ft. Worth raised their water rates last year and we pay a LOT more for water than our neighbors in Grapevine (who, by the way, had enough water flowing to share it with us) and they could not even make sure that the valves didn’t freeze. I challenged our Mayor to seek to take action against the Ft. Worth Water District but will not hold my breath waiting to see something happen. I am thankful that we escaped with only rolling blackouts and the loss of water for a day or so.

    1. Glad that you guys made out OK too. It was a mess on all levels, and for the local angle, I do agree they could have done so much more. But I do know the City is under constant pressure to cut costs and staff to make sure our precious property taxes don’t rise – I wonder how big of a dream team of sound city management they’re able to pull together, given that. If this colossal Charlie Foxtrot could at least make us better prepared for the next round, I’d call it a win. But I’m afraid we won’t learn anything.

  4. Glad you guys are OK. It was shocking to watch on the news just how impacted Texas was by things we “northerners” consider just a regular part of winter — Power outages, snow & ice storms, freezing temperatures, etc.

    And you’re dead right — backup plans are key to coming through such events unscathed.

    It’s hard to fathom how such complete incompetence was possible. My father worked on isolated power grids for almost his entire career and they *always* had backups to bring online in the event of plants going down or extreme weather knocking something out.

    When my father saw what was going on, he just shook his head and said “How is that even possible?”

    1. Thanks Tako-san. Yeah, it was a pretty amazing display of incompetence, but it also just exposed the bad part of being human. Houses here aren’t built to the standard for cold that northern ones are – the builders, being rational and selfish, will be long gone before the next once-a-decade winter storm hits, whereas it’s every year up there so they can’t (and building codes won’t allow them to). People are overly focused on the short term and keep forgetting the long-tailed but still inevitable events. The good news is that weather extremes will continue so maybe this’ll be a more regular occurrence and then we’ll be forced to prepare 🙂

      Tell your dad he needs to come down here and offer some consulting to ERCOT (or maybe become their next CEO…). It sounds like he’s got more sense than the entire leadership team!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.