Power outage gives town wake-up call about need for backup generators

by Geoff Fox

A power outage that lasted most of the day on Tuesday, February 13, gave Hancock officials a reminder about the need for new generators to run the water and wastewater systems.

The power was knocked out due to snowfall Monday, February 12, into early Tuesday morning.

Town Manager Mike Faith said the outage was for “a couple hours” that day and Town Hall had phones down and other issues.

The problem with significant power outages such as the one on February 13 is the town’s wastewater pumps have back up generators to keep pump wastewater to the lagoon.

“The deficiency is we don’t have a back up generator at the well house and we don’t have one at the lagoon,” Faith said.

Without backup power at the well house, the town has just two or three days worth of pumping water.

Hancock’s public water pump house is one facility where town officials are considering installing a backup generator to keep operating during a power outage.

Faith said after everything is empty, “then we got to figure out something.”

At the lagoon, the town is regulated on what can be discharged into Tonoloway Creek and eventually the Potomac River. The town treats 388,000 gallons a day.

When the inflow infiltration on the town’s system is combined, Faith said flows will be harder to control.

The lagoon had about four inches of space before overflow level. That space is spread over a couple acres, but the lagoon had to be shut down during the outage because the wastewater couldn’t be pumped.

The town’s wastewater system at the lagoon is operated on energy collected from a solar field above the lagoons.

Faith said Public Works did get a price on a back up generator for the well house. He wasn’t sure if the town would want to purchase one for the wastewater side as the town is working toward a new system.

Councilman Josh McCusker suggested talking to RK&K, the firm doing the engineering work on the new wastewater system, about looking at a generator that could be transferred to the new plant when it’s finished.

Faith agreed with McCusker, saying it was a good point and would allow some duplication at the site.

At one point, town officials approved getting more aerators at the lagoon, Faith added, however there’s not enough electrical capacity at the lagoon to do so.

“The infrastructure up there is just really old,” he said.

McCusker said he didn’t want to throw money at a generator if there’s going to be a new plant in the near future.

Faith said there had been an issue earlier in the day at the NAPA pumps station when the transfer switch didn’t fully engage when the generators came on. An electric company got the switch running in about a half hour.

The generators at the pump stations come on once a week, Faith said, and cycle, but not under a load.

Generators were to be topped off with diesel fuel.

Councilman David Kerns made a point just before adjournment of the February meeting to point out more about the generators.

Kerns told town officials they are very unique with the availability of natural gas.

“Before we go on to get generators for different places, why don’t we use natural gas generators?” he asked.

Natural gas generators don’t have to be refilled and are always connected to natural gas lines, he said.

Kerns said he thinks before spending money on the generators, the town should at least look at hooking on to the natural gas lines for backup power.

Columbia Gas could give the town up to 75 feet from the main, Kerns added.

“In the grand scheme of things, we could possibly benefit by doing this,” he said.

Kerns pointed out Hancock is very vulnerable if four inches of snow could shut the whole town down.

With the well house only able to function for two days, three if everyone were to ration their water, Kerns wants people to prepare themselves.

“A power outage as small as this was can shut you down and people act like it’s the end of the world,” Kerns said.

He said town officials need to remember it’s their responsibility to provide the residents with water and wastewater services and the number one thing they need to provide.

“If we don’t have those things in place to be backed up, then I think we’re failing them,” Kerns said.