The Battle for Electricity

Part 1: Bureaucracy At Its Best

For some extraordinarily frustrating reason, many otherwise relatively simple tasks proved to be prolonged, draining struggles. The process of just getting temporary electricity, for example, took over two years as I faced numerous setbacks as well as resistance on multiple fronts.

The saga began in the spring of 2015, shortly after I'd finalized plans for the house. After some online research and a few phone calls, I learned that I first required two 9-digit work numbers, one each for temporary and permanent service, before any work could begin. I then had to contact a local JCP&L engineer and arrange for a review of the proposed service installation. So far, so good.

A week or two after my call, the engineer came out and determined that the transformer located on one corner of my property (which provides service for a neighbor) was too far from the house; I'd need to have a new transformer installed. And while the transformer and its installation would not cost me anything, for some inexplicable reason I'd have to foot the bill for a 750-foot trench running from one transformer to the other.

However, JCP&L would not install the new transformer until construction on my house had begun because, as the engineer explained, the utility company wouldn't go to the expense of providing service if there was any chance the house was never built. I asked what constituted the point at which they'd agree to install the transformer: would, say, installation of the septic system be sufficient? "Sure," was the reply.

Shortly after the septic system was completed in October 2015, I got in touch with the utility company engineer. "No," was his terse reply to my request to begin the work. He said they needed to see, at minimum, a finished foundation before they'd lift a finger. He adamantly denied having agreed that a completed septic system was sufficient, and refused to discuss the matter further. Since foundation work could not begin until the following spring, I was forced to endure a second winter with no electricity.

And so I patiently waited until the foundation was finished before revisiting the subject of electric service. Although I'd intended to wire the house myself, I was not going to make the connection between the transformer and the main breaker panel, so I began shopping for an electrical contractor. Little did I know this seemingly trivial step would become my biggest challenge.

I burned through six contractors in as many months: half were no-shows, while the rest evidently didn't want to do the work since their bids were outrageously high. Over two grand just to energize a breaker panel? I don't think so. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever find an electrician who didn't think they walked on water. Meanwhile, my life had begun collapsing, and although the house was more than far enough along to suit JCP&L, I no longer had the funds to do the work. Thus I had to endure yet another winter—my third—with no electricity.

Part 2: The Dark Cloud

Spring 2017 arrived, and I was growing immensely tired of burning through twenty gallons of gasoline a week, not to mention burning through generators—I was on my sixth. Plus, summer was fast approaching, and with it a need for air conditioning (which would increase gas consumption by 50%). Dire necessity gave rise to a crazy idea: could I get temporary service installed at the remote transformer? With some trepidation I called the JCP&L engineer. The phone number no longer worked, and in the process of discovering he'd moved on, I also learned that my work numbers had expired; I had to start the process all over from the beginning.

Armed with new numbers, I tracked down the new engineer, and he came out to the property to review the situation. While he proved to be somewhat more agreeable than his predecessor, I was still faced with that one seemingly insurmountable hurdle: finding an electrician. At a loss as to which way to turn, I paid the Township zoning officer a visit to ask for recommendations, even knowing she probably wasn't permitted to do so. Thankfully she was at least able to point me in the right general direction, and after some online searches for honest-sounding reviews, I found a potential candidate.

To my immense relief, he agreed to do the job for a reasonable fee. Even better, when he came to have a look at the property, we spent about a half-hour chatting, and at one point he talked about how he would feed the chipmunks on his deck. It was at that moment I knew I'd found the right person. I've hired every contractor based on how they reacted to my property: if they expressed a genuine love for nature, I'd hire them right then and there. It may sound quite strange, but it's always proven to be exactly the right choice.

However, I'm convinced there's a dark cloud that follows me everywhere. First, I had to postpone everything because one of my cats had taken ill and required costly surgery. No sooner was that resolved but another new roadblock materialized. My contractor has done literally hundreds of jobs like this, yet JCP&L refused to do the work, claiming the trench was not dug properly, adding that it might be 2-3 weeks before they could reschedule the work. My electrician came out to have a look: turns out heavy rains had caused the trench to partially collapse, and he kindly re-dug it at no charge.

July became August, and still no electricity. When I called the JCP&L engineer, he immediately passed the buck to their job scheduler. When I finally connected with him after a week of calling, the scheduler expressed confusion: why was there no 750-foot trench along the driveway to the house, he asked? Evidently he was never informed by the engineer that the temporary connection was being done right at the transformer. He was instead working off of the original specs for permanent service drawn up two years prior; he even had the old, outdated work numbers. Consequently, the job got dumped in their WTF bin, and had I not called asking about its status, they would never have bothered to do the work, much less contact me!

It took nearly all of my remaining strength to refrain from going postal on JCP&L. But then, when at last I got a new firm date for the connection work, it poured rain that day, meaning I had to wait another week or two while the work was rescheduled. That dark cloud was hanging over me again—literally, this time. Yes, I finally got temporary electric service, and my little cabin was up and running... on a 350-foot extension cord.

But finally having electricity was not the end of the battle. After a couple of months, I realized I'd never received a bill from them. So I called, and it's a good thing, too. The person on the phone advised me that I was on their "to be disconnected" list for failure to pay. "I never received any bills," I informed them. They asked me to confirm my billing address, which was a place I'd never lived! And of course I had to pay late fees—all due to their mistake. JCP&L was bound and determined to kill me with frustration.

Part 3: Sticking It To the Customer

When at long last I received the permit to have the work done, JCP&L continued to make sure that getting electricity would be as painful, costly and time-consuming as possible. As of January 2018, they required all underground lines to be run through conduit—and they waited until August to inform me of this fact. This is a double-whammy because the customer bears the cost of the trenching as well as purchasing and installing the conduit. Worse, since the conduit cannot follow sharp curves, it would almost certainly require cutting down trees to run the line. I'd already put my foot down on that point, but if I wanted electricity, I didn't have much choice.

Above was the agreed-upon plan back in 2015, which was no longer feasible given their new requirements. Their proposal was to clear a swath of trees running straight from the existing transformer diagonally across the property to the house—and my cabin was smack in the middle of the run. Impossible! So, below is a proposed plan that avoided having to clear any trees by placing the secondary transformer at the corner of the sharpest bend in the driveway.

In one of the more positive developments in this saga, JCP&L tentatively approved my plan. But the victory was short-lived. Within days of JCP&L's visit, their engineer began making changes in the specifications. The conduit went from 3-inch to 4-inch (contrary to JCP&L's published specs), and the pull box went from an underground fixture to an enormous above-ground monstrosity, which was impractical: there was no room for such a huge box—it would need to be located on the neighbor's property, and I knew full well that wouldn't fly. So, more prolonged back-and-forth ensued.

The solution came in the form of a blunder: JCP&L mandated a pull box every 400 feet, but the engineer commented that they'd done pulls of over 600 feet. Since my longest run was 490 feet, I used the engineer's little factoid to lobby for eliminating the pull box altogether. After further haggling, they grudgingly agreed, and put their stamp of approval on the plan. It "only" took a month and a half to get to that point. But it still meant I'd have to spend over $3,000 to run the line to the house: I had to pay for everything except the wire—even including over $600 worth of rope to pull the wire! (About the rope: the crew doing the wire pull informed me that I could have just put twine in the conduit, and that they'd pull their own rope. Grrr!)

The subsequent steps included:

It all came to an end—at long, long last—on Monday, 29 October 2018, with the installation of the meter. The red light means we're live!

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