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Multipoint Utility Neutral Problem - House Burns to Ground

Mike, thank you for your articles on your website about the dangers of an open neutral.

Note: Visit, and search for "open neutral".

I've been struggling to understand why my home burned down (utility transformer malfunction - open neutral) and your website not too technical to where I could understand easy enough to interpret what happened at my home.

The fire departments that attempted to control the fire were completely reluctant to explain the part the transformer played and kept telling me it was something in the house wiring. An electrician traced the problem 'beyond' my meter on the pole outside and then the crewman from the Electric co-op made mention of the open neutral but couldn't explain it to where I could understand it or how it started the fire in my home.

Again, Thank you!

Sky W Cockrum

Mike Holt's Comment: I asked Sky to tell us what happened, so hear is the "rest of the story."

Between the years 1997 through 1999
We added an additional 1200 sq. feet onto our home and had all of the old wiring in the older part of the house replaced with new wire, grounded outlets and safety (GFS) outlets in the kitchen and bathrooms. A completely new breaker box and breakers was installed. All of the work met or exceeded state building codes.

Everything worked fine and there were no problems with the electricity, appliances or electronics. We had surge protectors on the larger electronics- TV, VCR, Nintendo, Sony Playstation, computers, scanner, printers, and a costly battery backup system and very good surge protector on the main business computer.

January 2002, Extremely High Electric Bill $500 +/-
The electric co-op was contacted about it from our apartment in Georgetown, TX. I was told that I must have been misread the meter for several months and that if I wanted to keep the electricity on at the ranch, I needed to pay the bill by the date it was due. Otherwise, it would be disconnected for non-payment and I would need to pay a $900 deposit (If I recall correctly) or something equivalent to three months electricity- with the $500 dollar electric bill added in of course, to have it turned back on.

I tried to explain the circumstances- no one living there, something was wrong, etc- my concerns were dismissed, I misread the meter, no payment plan available, please pay the bill by the specified date or the electricity would be turned off...... I paid the bill.
In the meantime, in the 3-bedroom apartment w/ central air and heat I was renting in Georgetown, TX the electric bill was generally $60/ per month, which included water and garbage service.

The next weekend I found that the cordless phone wasn't working and replaced it with a Wal-Mart Panasonic model the next weekend.

*Note: No one was living in the house at the time and electricity was only being used for the well and freezer. My mother's health, which at the time was aged 87, was not good and I was living in Georgetown near the nursing home she was in. I went to Cherokee every weekend for a few hours to check on the place and livestock.

[Don't remember when - between the former and next incident] - there was an electrical 'event' during which the new cordless phone that I had purchased from Wal-Mart quit working and I purchased a new cordless phone from our local phone company (Central Texas Telephone Company- CTTC).

February or March 2003
The house down the road (and transformer line) from me burned to the ground. I was one of the responding San Saba County EMS crew. No one was home at the time of the fire, which began around (est.) 5 am. We (EMS) were called to respond at approximately 6:40 am. The cause of the fire was determined to be a coffee pot that 'may' have been left on.

May 2003
During an afternoon on a clear day my TV malfunctioned and subsequently went off, I could smell a 'plastic burning wire' smell throughout the house. It was a clear day- no lights were being used in the house at the time.

I called the fire department that responded and determined the cause of the problem was an electrical problem with the TV and they removed it from the house for me.
That night the guard light outside failed to come on at dusk. Over the next several days I realized that a lot of appliances and electronics in the house didn't work.
Among them: TV, Pegasus TV's satellite box, Refrigerator, Dryer, Washer, HP Printer, 3 Surge Protectors, 4 Fans, Electric Radio Alarm Clock, the new phone that I had purchased from CTTC.

The refrigerator kind of worked- we had a repairman out to fix it several times but it never worked consistently again no matter what he did or replaced on it. We replaced the refrigerator after a couple of months and several service trips and parts replacements by the repairman.

I contacted the electric co-op about the guard light and mentioned all of the other appliances and electrical damage. The person I spoke with was surprised that the light had burned out but mentioned that it would be checked into when they came out to replace the guard light.

My husband contacted electric co-op about a damage claim and was given a card of who with electric co-op handles those things. He gave me the card with the man's name on it. I was working on a complete listing of what was damaged and had to be replaced, and what had been replaced already.

June 2003
The electricity bill (for the usage during May?) was very high- around $400. We called the electric co-op about it. Explained that there MUST be something wrong as our house has no AC and during that time of the year, we just don't use that much electricity and there was no way we could have consumed that amount of service.
The electric co-op had someone come out and check the meter- it was functioning properly and the meter reading had been correct.

If I had known more about electricity and over voltage and it's symptoms at the time I would have immediately suspected what the problem was and would have realized that it was possibly a very dangerous malfunction that needed to be checking into ASAP.
But I hadn't a clue and knew from the previous abnormally high electric bill incident that I could either pay the bill and keep my electricity or not pay it and do without.
(In retrospect I perhaps should have somehow gone without electricity as keeping it almost cost us our lives)

My mother had passed away in February 2002 so we were living back at the ranch and the electricity was deemed necessary so again I paid the bill.

September 2003
As I was getting ready for bed the lights in the house began to go haywire. Bright one moment, dims the next, flickering, and exploding. My 10-year-old son came into the room to tell me that there were some problems with the lights in the back of the house too.
At this time we were both in the dining room and every way we turned something was going on with lights, dim, bright or bursting bulbs and we were very frightened and felt trapped in the middle of a nightmare. My daughter was on the other end of the house asleep and I had no idea what was happening back there and couldn't seem to get out of the dining room.

During a lag in lightbulb activity-
On my way back to my daughters room on the other end of the house I went into the office to get the phone but it didn't work and I grabbed the pickup keys and went on in to wake my daughter up with my son right behind me and scared to death, to let her know that we had to go to town and call the fire department.

She had been sleeping and didn't want to go but I told her that she absolutely had to go with us because there was something wrong with the lights and I could smell something that smelled like wires burning again. It was misty outside at this time but no thunder or lightning. She got up, wanted to change out of her pj's but I told her we needed to get on to town and call the Fire Department. We drove to town and called the fire department- the time now was around 10:30 - 11:00 pm.

The fire dep't came out and saw the dim and bright lights and was looking at the breaker box in the house trying to determine the cause. They couldn't find a problem but the light in the hallway across from the breaker box was very bright and then went out. I retrieved another lightbulb and they attempted to replace the bulb but on 'electrical' contact the new lightbulb exploded. The children and I went outside.

The fire department suggested that they call an electrician in to look into the problem. Industrial Electric was called and came out and checked everything over. He traced the problem to 'beyond' my meter (outside on a pole) and the electric co-op was called to check further.

The repairman climbed the meter pole (w/spikes and belt) to look for a problem there- everything was ok there.

Then we went out in the pasture to where the transformer was. The bucket truck was brought around to where the transformer was (is) and he went up to look at the transformer. He determined that the transformer was causing the trouble- a negative something or other and set about performing repairs to it.

After repairs, as he stepped down to the ground, he said, "Well, that's a temporary fix".
The next day the lights flickered and I called the electric co-op to make sure everything was ok, I mentioned the trouble that we had had the night before and wanted to make sure the temporary fix was still working. The man said that everything was fine and the fluctuation was most likely due to something or other that they had done in another area.
The electrician suggested that we keep the breakers turned off that night and he would come out the next day and take a look and see what kind of damage the transformer malfunction had done.

He came out the next day and determined that the some of the outlets on the 'very good' surge protector had been burned out and were non-functioning. He found a dead short in the dishwasher line and checked the other outlets and wiring. He told us to leave one of the breakers turned off (that runs the dishwasher line) - which we did until he could have his repair crew come out and replace the wire.

The repair crew came out a few weeks later and replaced the 220 wire to the dishwasher and the dishwasher still didn't work. I continued washing the dishes by hand as I was still replacing electronics and appliances that had burned out from the previous incident and determined that I would replace the dishwasher when I could.
On January 16 around 2am I had a dream that I smelled smoke. I woke up 'somewhat' and realized that I really did smell smoke and the house was full of it and I woke up fully, got up and went to floor level- the smoke was just as thick there and I could see nothing.

I got up and called out to my son whose bed was also in my room as he was afraid to sleep by himself.

The smoke was so thick, and disorienting as well, that I couldn't see anything and I prayed as I called out to him that he would answer me. Normally, very hard to awaken, he answered me immediately and I told him to get out of the house, it was on fire.
We had discussed fire evacuation many times and had agreed that we would all go out either the door or window that was closest to us and meet up outside in a safe area and distance.

Then I called out to my daughter- again praying that she would answer me, and she answered me immediately. I told her that the house was on fire and to get out.
I wanted to go and make sure she was really awake and getting out but as I walked toward where I thought the hallway I encountered a tremendous amount of heat and I decided to get out via the quickest possible route and go around to her outside door to make sure she was ok and out of the house.

I found my way to the door that goes outside from my room and crawled over a desk and bed to get to the door instead of going around the stuff - I kept thinking that if I don't get out I'm going to pass out from breathing the smoke (I must have been in a some kind of controlled panic state). I tried to turn on lights as I went out of the house as there were several light switches at the doorway but no lights came on. I don't remember getting off the back porch and going around to the side of the house but that's where I met my daughter and looked her over to make sure she was alright.

Then my son was there with us. I had thought he was already out of the house when I went out but he said that he had only found his way to the door and had gotten out because he saw the light that I had turned on in the doorway but that it was very dim.
My daughter told me that the fire was in front and so I went to look and the fire was in the den. Two small fires on different sides of the room. (Which really doesn't account for all the smoke in the back of the house, which is divided by a door that is closed at night- and no ac or heat vent system).

The fires were small and looked manageable. I had told my son to turn the electricity off at the pole which he did, but then told him to turn the main breaker for the well (center breaker) back on and went around the side of the house to get the water hose.
One of the glass panels in the door had fallen out and so I sprayed the hose toward what looked to be a fire on the piano bench. After a few minutes that fire was out. Then I turned my attention towards the fire that appeared to be from on of the upper levels of the entertainment center. I couldn't extinguish that fire but spraying it with the hose kept it minimized for a long time.

We kept hoping that a passing vehicle would go by that we could ask to call the fire department but being at such an early morning hour and such a rural location, no vehicles passed by.

Finally, I decided that I needed to try to get to the phone or the keys. The phone was in the office but I couldn't remember if I had left the keys in the office or in the kitchen.
I pulled the air conditioner out of the window and then shoved the top off of the prairie dog cage so I could gain entry into the room, and tons of smoke poured out. I felt around at the bottom of the prairie dog cage but couldn't find the prairie dog.

I knew with the fire in the next room and me not holding the water hose on it that my time was limited and I needed to get to the phone and get back out. I felt my way across the room and pushed the door closed so that the smoke would not continue to come in at least while I was in there.

I went to where the phone was and to where my keys would have been if they were in there. I found the phone but not the keys so I went back out the window and tried to call 911. The phone didn't work. My son reminded me that I had asked him to turn the breakers (on the outside pole) off to the house and asked me if I wanted him to turn them back on so the phone would work. I told him yes but the phone still didn't work and I then told him told him to turn the breaker back off.

I again began spraying the fire on the entertainment center but by this time it had progressed to the upper level and a level below where it had been on the entertainment center. Shortly after this it went all the way to the ceiling which consisted of 3/8" sheetrock over 50 year old yellow pine in the original part of the house which caught fire quickly. At this point there was nothing I could do to stop the fire and knew it would spread through the ceiling, via the fiberglass insulation and dry old yellow pine rapidly and I withdrew to a safe distance with the children.

We stood in the road and called for help (knowing no one would hear us) and called out to the cats repeatedly. One by one the cats joined us in the ditch like weary soldiers returning from battle, grateful to find a family member waiting for them. All but my son's cat, Java, the Prairie Dog (P-Dog) and three little kittens in my office closet. We feared that Java was lost in the fire and knew that the P-Dog probably wouldn't be able to find his way out and the kittens weren't old enough to walk.

A passing vehicle came down the road and stopped to ask if everyone was out. I told them yes, we were all out, but would they call the fire department when they got to town. At this time the front part of the house was engulfed in flames.

After another 20 minutes or so we heard the sirens and knew that the Cherokee Volunteer Fire Department was on the way.

Our local Cherokee fire department units arrived first and then units from San Saba and San Saba EMS (that I volunteer with) arrived. Most of the house was fully engulfed at this point.

The fire/arson investigator determined the cause of the fire as electrical due to beading on the wiring. I did not have homeowners insurance due to the high cost or rural insurance. I thought also, since I had gone to great lengths and expense to ensure the wiring in my home was safe and in good condition that our odds of having an electrical fire were very low.

Since the Fire:
The water lines that went from the well, through the house and then out to the barn and pastures are obliterated.

I've moved a smallish water trough up behind the yard fence and had a water hydrant line closed off where it ran onto the house so I can fill up the water trough for the remaining 2 horses and 9 goats.

I've filled this trough up 4 times now since the fire and the new meter- installed a few days after the fire, which started out on zero is now on 42. It takes 20 minutes to completely fill the trough with the water faucet all the way on. The first three times I filled the trough the numbers on the trough were moving quickly enough that their movement was visible. Having nothing to compare it to- I had no idea if it were normal electricity usage or not.

On Saturday, April 3, 2004 I again filled the trough. The meter still read 42 and I keep all of the breakers turned off (one to the well and one to the storage shed) except when I am filling the water trough.

Again it took 20 minutes to fill the water trough and the meter still read 42 when it was full and I turned the breaker back off.

I don't know if the transformer has been repaired, replaced or was just functioning properly on that day.

I have not contacted the electric company to determine whether we might be covered under any type of insurance they may have- or 'if' they will even acknowledge that the transformer played a part in the fire.

Three weeks ago another newer home in Cherokee began to smolder. Cause of the fire was determined to be bad wiring. Up to that point, the home had not had any trouble. I suspect that it is the next in line on the transformer on my place but the Fire Dep't. is positive that the transformer had nothing to do with it.

Cherokee is a rather small rural community- around 350 people, maybe (just guessing) around 150 homes. Our structure fire count due to electrical reasons is (est.) around 20 homes in the past 5 years.

The state fire marshal has suggested that I contact the Public Utilities Commission - or something like that.

I don't know if I will or not. I checked out their website and they seem to indicate that I might have to testify to prove what I am saying and I cannot do that as I am not an electrician- AND that I might want to have an attorney represent me. I am not in any position to obtain an attorney since my business burned to the ground as well as my home.

Seems like 'they' would be the ones who need to check things out and prove whatever 'they' find for the benefit of other customers that are receiving power from this transformer.

Sky W Cockrum

Grounding and Bonding Book — 2002
Grounding and Bonding textbook is all new and printed in full color. Loaded with detailed, color coded graphics, this text gets to the root of all problems associated with grounding and bonding.

Product Code: 02NCT2
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Illustrations: 206
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