What to do when you lose power at the cottage

Silhouette of hydro poles at sunset Photoonlife/Shutterstock

It was early Saturday morning of a May long weekend, and Mylène Tomkin was putting across Go Home Lake in her little tin boat, basking in the delight of a favourite annual ritual: the cottage opening. Tomkin spends her summer weekends on a water-access lot on the steep-sloped north shore of the lake. A lot of work goes into opening weekend—multiple boxes of supplies, a cooler packed full of food for the fridge, another for the freezer, a boat hauled out of winter storage, and an engine awakened from slumber—but it rewards with the anticipation of the summer of leisure ahead.

With Tomkin in her boat and a friend following in her bowrider, they arrived at her waterfront, tied up, and lugged all the stuff up from dock to deck. Then she unlocked the door and headed, as she always does, straight for the electrical panel. “Walking across the room I noticed some tissues on the floor,” Tomkin recalls. “I stopped for just a few seconds and thought, Oh, we’ve had mice.” It was during that tiny pause that her friend looked out the window and said, “Your hydro mast is down.”

In fact, the meter attached to the mast was upside down and filled with water. Were it not for those mice, Tomkin would have flipped the switch on what could have been a charged, waterlogged line. “I’ll never open the cottage again without first walking around it and checking the electrical cables,” she says now. After a brief pause to consider the potential disaster she’d just averted, Tomkin began to address the one that remained. She called Hydro One’s emergency line around midday. That call set in motion a complex process—one for which she wasn’t prepared.

Hydro One sent an employee out to inspect her property at 4:30 that afternoon. He told her that a tree branch had fallen on the line, not only damaging the mast attached to her cottage but also taking down the cables from the hydro pole farther out on her property. In addition, that hydro pole was rotted through, leaving it unsafe for workers to climb. She’d need a permit from the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA), she’d have to hire an electrician to conduct the repairs, and she’d need to bring in a new hydro pole— or forgo poles altogether by burying the line. Until then, her service would be disconnected. “He told me, ‘You need to call Hydro One back on Tuesday and request a service layout.’ ” She hadn’t known that the pole had rotted through or what a service layout was. It was a lot to digest at the end of a challenging day.

Many cottagers mistakenly think that Hydro One, as a provincially owned utility, is a one-stop service-and-repair shop that delivers electricity to your door. In reality, Hydro One delivers no farther than your property line—which, if you own a large lot, can result in major expense. The cottager is typically responsible for all electrical transmission on their property, requiring purchasing and maintaining all the equipment needed to do so: masts, cables, poles, the works. The only gear Hydro One provides is the meter.

The repair of a downed power line is essentially a five-step process, but you won’t find the steps outlined on Hydro One’s website or anywhere else. Here’s a guide through the maze. The process will be similar in other provinces, but always check with the power utility in your jurisdiction. In New Brunswick, for example, NB Power is only responsible for overhead cables and the meter.

Tomkin’s conversation with the Hydro One employee was Step 1, Diagnosis and Disconnection. This is Hydro One’s job and there is no charge for it. A technician will examine the state of the property and will reconnect service if possible. If not, the utility will disconnect your service, which allows you to move on to Step 2, Assessment.

Step 2 is when cottagers must confront some key choices. If you’ve been thinking of moving your breaker panel or upgrading to 200 amp service so you can, say, install a hot tub, perhaps now is the time to act. Most importantly, you’ll have to decide whether to reconnect above ground or to bury the cables beneath the surface. The underground route requires less maintenance and lasts longer. But installation can be expensive—armoured cable can cost $20 or more per metre. Going underground is also less predictable; if you can’t bury your cables 45 cm beneath the surface, you’ll have to encase them in concrete.

It’s best to perform the Assessment stage with the help of
 a licensed electrician. Many electricians, especially in cottage country, will handle all the work involved, whether you’re installing new poles above ground or burying wires beneath it, which means they can help cost out your options. One licensed electrician who didn’t want to be named says that cottage country is lousy with rotting poles. “Many of them were installed in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “I’ve seen situations where, once I disconnected a line, the pole fell over. The line was holding up the pole.”

A new pole can cost a few hundred dollars, but delivery can be hundreds more, depending on how accessible your cottage is. With any other upgrades you need, such as new conductors, the line may not be able to span the same distance between poles, which means you may suddenly need two poles instead of one. And if it’s a challenge to dig their foundations, as is often the case on the Canadian Shield, their installation can cost thousands—for each pole. Tomkin consulted with a contractor and a friend who’s an electrician. She decided to go underground, even though she was told to expect a five-figure bill. Jeremiah Tilstra, the owner of Muskoka Lighting and Electric in Huntsville, Ont., suggests that restoring overhead service would likely have cost nearly as much. Another caveat: Step 2 is also the stage when cottagers should contact their insurer. Typically, an insurance policy will cover the system you have, not the system you want. Ross Robertson of R. Robertson Insurance in Toronto, which specializes in cottage policies, recalls a client in the Kawartha district who was determined to put his downed wires underground, but his insurance company wouldn’t pay the full cost. “He was covered for the replacement cost of overhead service,” Robertson recalls. “If he insisted on going underground he would have received a payout and had to cover any costs above that amount.” In the end, he chose to replace his overhead service. The work was extensive and entailed tree pruning and the installation of two poles—but, aside from the deductible, the insurer paid the entire bill.

Once you’ve decided on a plan, it’s time for the bureaucratic Step 3, Notifying Officials. You’ll need to again call Hydro One to request a service layout, which is a map of the new plans for your property. If you are reconnecting overhead service and have no downed poles, Hydro One may allow you to skip the service layout. But if, like Tomkin, you’re planning substantial changes, Hydro One will send a technician to your property to map out your chosen solution. (There’s no charge for a service layout, but if you change your mind and need another one, you’ll have to pay.)

You’ll also need a permit from the ESA, the organization that regulates Ontario’s licensed electrical contractors (i.e., the businesses that hire electricians) and ensures that their work is to code. Your electrical contractor should be able to handle this step for you. If he or she doesn’t, or won’t, double-check credentials. “We only deal with property owners and licensed electrical contractors,” explains ESA spokesperson Kathryn Chopp. “When an electrician asks the property owner to call, it could be a sign they aren’t licensed.”

When both Hydro One and the ESA have signed off on the plans, you can finally move to Step 4, Do the Work.
 In a remote location like Tomkin’s, that means that she’ll incur barging fees for tools and materials, including concrete mixers and bags of concrete mix, all of which will have to be hauled up her steep slopes. (That job typically falls to your electrician’s youngest apprentice.) There’s just one last catch: your contractors are not allowed to finish the job. For that you move to Step 5, Inspection and Reconnection. First, the ESA will send an inspector to approve the installation and will charge for the inspector’s work as well as for travel time. Fees for the permit and the inspection visit vary, depending on how remote the location and the extent of the work, and the electrician will be passing those fees on to you; you should ask to see the ESA invoice. You should also ask for a copy of the certificate of inspection for your records. Once the ESA issues a connection authorization, Hydro One technicians will make the final site visit to reconnect your service.

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