Electrical Companies Respond to Worst Ice Storm in Kansas City History

Feb. 8, 2002
The phone has been ringing off the hook at Tann Electric since a winter ice storm roared through Kansas City last week. Frozen tree limbs crashed on power

The phone has been ringing off the hook at Tann Electric since a winter ice storm roared through Kansas City last week.

Frozen tree limbs crashed on power lines and ripped the meter housings apart from homes, leaving 387,000 homes without power. John Tann, president and owner of Tann Electric, said all 15 of his electricians responded to the disaster, the worst ice storm in Kansas City's history.

“Our philosophy is to get the power back on to the people as soon as we can,” Tann said. “We've been fairly successful in getting people's power back on the day they call us.”

Tann Electric, a 10-year-old service company in Lenexa, Kan., specializes in electrical and datacom work for residential customers. In the first few days of the ice storm, freezing rain covered the streets of Kansas City, transformers blew and entire neighborhoods turned pitch black. Tann said his customer service crew handled hundreds of phone calls.

“The thing that I've compared it to is the Jerry Lewis Telethon,” Tann said. “We tried to handle every call that came in. I know that we've had some customers say that they couldn't get through, but we try to answer the phone and take calls every day.”

Tann Electric temporarily lost power, but with its computers on backup and its phone system still in operation, they continued to take service calls.

“We had a few less lights, but we kept on going,” Tann said. “Since the storm, we have probably taken 250 calls.”

The Lenexa, Kan.-based division of McBride Electric, an electrical contracting company which has corporate offices in San Diego, also was busy with storm repair work. Robin Yessen, McBride Electric's division manager, said the company spent much of its time in the early days of the storm's aftermath rebuilding service entrances. “The ice storm pulled a lot of meter housings away from homes,” he said. “Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) asked us to bring the meter housings back to code.”

He added that there are some concerns about utilities doing “quick-fix repairs” to restore service.

“No one knows if the equipment's been compromised,” he said. “Are the lugs damaged? Is the drop from the utility damaged? Is a loose fitting going to cause arcing and sparking? The problem may not be apparent once the electricity's turned on. In one case, a utility contractor had wired around a meter. Electricity creates heat that will cause failure over time, so bad repairs may not be apparent immediately.”

The danger of fire is also of real concern for the electrical contractors and homeowners, Tann said.

“One of the fire departments here in town said we've had more fires in the last five days than we've had in the last five years,” he said. “The services are coming down and then they get arcing on the back of their house.”

Very few of Tann's customers had backup generators, but they may think about getting them now that Kansas City has had two crippling ice storms in five years.

“We've had enough long-term power outages here that people after 1996 were talking seriously about it and then they forgot it,” Tann said. “This might make them think more about putting up a permanently installed backup system or a temporary backup system where they can roll a generator outside and bring a cord in and throw a transfer switch and be powered back on.”

McBride Electric's Yessen said the radio ads that his company ran several days after the storm drew many calls.

“It's not like we're trying to corner the market,” he said. “But this could be a good time for homeowners to upgrade their equipment — particularly if homeowner's insurance policy covers it. We have seen grounding problems in about 80 percent of the homes we've inspected. We've installed about 50 ground rods.

“I don't know if our company's going to turn any profit (on this work), considering transportation and per-diem costs. But we're happy to help out, and I think it shows people the quality of work we do.”

Other Kansas City area electrical companies have had a busy week. Thomas Hiemer, principal and owner of TM Sales, a rep agency in North Kansas City, Mo., with a strong focus on utility work, said his manufacturers have been “working around the clock” to make the products that utilities need to restore power.

“We worked all through the weekend to bring material in and allocate it to the various utilities and the various customers,” he said. “There are thousands of lines and poles that are down. Of course, to replace them, you need ground wire. We have a manufacturer of bare copper that has worked all through the weekend to get bare copper for grounding to the utilities.

“Milbank Manufacturing makes the sockets and thousands of those have been pulled off the wall. Each utility has its own specifications, so we've been taking substitute meters available from all over the country, taking them to all the utilities to have them sign off that, ‘Yes this meter will work with this modification.’ Every utility has their own version of how they want their meter socket, whether they want to have a fifth terminal or a separate lug, or whatever it is that they want.

“Our manufacturers have been extremely responsive, especially Millbank Manufacturing, Allen Wire, and Tyco. Without them doing what they've done, people would still not have power. You can't turn the power back on in the home unless you've got a new socket to put the new meter in. You've got to ground all the transformers, and you can't do that without the ground wire, and you can't hook up the wire without the hardware. Plus, we've been supplying the overhead wire too. It's been real interesting.”

Hiemer said that while the Kansas City metropolitan area has had some big ice storms over the years, no other storm has been of this magnitude.

“Just from the ice storms we have had in the past, we knew that we needed to gear up, so we contacted our manufacturers and said, ‘Get ready. Can you put some extra manufacturing capacity just for our type of products?’ They did and it's paid off big dividends.”

He added that with some of the utility products that were in highest demand, his company has done three to four months of business in four or five days.

“This was the storm of the century,” he said. “We've had them bad before, but not to this extent. A large tree that has an inch and a half of ice on it, that could be an extra six tons of weight. When six tons comes down on top of a power line, it's not going to withstand that. It just rips everything right off the wall.”

Mark Gauldin, operations manager for Temple Electric's Kansas and Missouri locations said the last few days have been a “whirlwind.”

“What day is it? It may sound like a stupid question, but when you don't go home, you just don't know what day it is,” Gauldin said. “We haven't left here since Tuesday night, when we first started realizing what was happening.”

Temple Electric, a Dallas-based utility specialist, supplies KCP&L with about 80 percent of its material. Temple has had a person on site at KCP&L facilities and also has been working with other utilities, including Western Resources and Utilicorp. It also pulls stock from its other locations around the country, including Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

Along with battling with power outages at three of its four Kansas City metropolitan locations, Temple Electric has been supplying utilities with transformers, wires, poles, meters, sockets, ties and wraps.

“We had enough materials for the first three days, and after that we've basically moving material in and out,” said Gauldin. “After two days we've already sold as much as we sell in 30 days. In one location, we've done a month's worth of business in two days.

“The flow of material has not been a problem, and the supply chain has been real good. Our customers said they were really surprised that the material got to them as quick. We pull from 28 manufacturers.

“Everybody may complain about KCP&L being slow in getting the power back on, but I don't think people have any idea what it takes to move materials just so we can get it to them. They've got 300 crews working, and that's pretty phenomenal. This will be definitely one that they'll be writing about in the record books.”

Gaulden said a well-timed acquisition has helped Temple Electric service the need for utility products. In addition, the company had also been getting ready to move to a larger facility and had already hired on new staff and rented moving trucks when the storm hit.

“There was a utility distributor that went bankrupt here in Kansas City about two months ago, and we purchased their inventory and facility. There's probably a million dollars of material that we had to pull from. We really had a gold mine, but we didn't realize it at the time.

“We were trying to figure out how we were going to move it. Well, we certainly figured it out. We've probably shipped in $400,000 or $500,000 in the last two days and we've brought in probably $700,000 or 800,000. We've moved a million dollars of material in two days.

“Our branch here normally does $20 million. We're going to do a third of this year's business in a month's time. The last time the ice storm hit people said, ‘We had a good year this month.’ That's about what it will amount to.”