Current thinking

Here at the cottage we’ve decided to have all the switches and plug points replaced. It seems they are 15 years old, which is apparently 10 years older than those of any of our neighbours. A few weeks ago a strange buzzing one evening was traced to the switch cover on the terrace outside the main bedroom, which was being besieged by tiny wasps or flies – I really don’t know which. Opening the plate revealed a veritable colony of these insects, happily living and reproducing in the darkness and making good use of the plastic trunking for their ideal home.

They seemed to be impervious to Baygon – rather like the larger cockroaches, in fact. You got the distinct impression that they were sniffing it up with glee like addicts of the worst kind. We tried wielding one of those electrified bats, which made very satisfying zings and sparks, but it quite quickly got bunged up with bodies which glued themselves unpleasantly to the wires and continued to fizzle even in death. It is hard, I find, to clean those bats.

After two or three days of persecution the remaining insects got the hint and decamped. But the whole event led to a closer examination of all the switches. Why, when we switched on the second from the right, did the second from the left go off? Why did this one only stay on when stuck down with sellotape? What about the curious incident of the fan in the night-time? When Thirupathi then described the gentle tingling he gets from certain switches during the monsoon season, we saw that action was needed.

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And the plug points. Some of the more pleasant yoga positions involve lying on your back and thinking about life, or death, or perhaps nothing – it is in that type of position that your attention is distracted by one of those black narrow-waisted wasps disappearing into a hole in an unused light fitting near the ceiling. And other sockets have totally lost their grip. The one into which my laptop is plugged is affected by gusts of wind, it seems. A strong draught moves the plug sufficiently to break the contact.

The TNEB are doing their best. Out here in the agricultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, the priority is for farmers and their irrigation pumps, not for little cottages. Following a power cut of 36 hours (and a panic about the contents of the freezer) we invested in the larger of the small generator sets available. This involved far more questions about electricity than I am qualified to answer. What exactly is the wattage of our water pump? [It is 1 horse-power – does that help?] I had to read the backs of all the appliances. Wow – the amount of current which a toaster and a kettle use is formidable. When the genset is running, we can maintain 3 fans, 3 light bulbs (as long as they are not more than 60W), the fridge, the laptop, and one of the kettle, toaster, mixie, washing machine or water pump. But not two at a time!

We have solar power for heating the water, which works well – though it is still quite expensive to install. But I am yet to get an answer to a question which I am unable to frame in metric terms, this being India and resolutely traditional in its measuring. How many square feet of solar panel would I need to run a one ton air conditioner? Some say even an acre of panel would be insufficient, but cannot produce the figures to back up this conjecture.

I am reminded of our electrical fun and games in Chennai. Soon after we moved into Bishop Garden we had a Saturday night power cut. Waking in a pool of sweat – this was May – and padding round the house, it was galling to hear that Peter, our guest, was clearly sleeping soundly in a/c comfort while we could not. Going into the kitchen, we found that the fridge was on but the lights were not. (It could have been worse). How odd. Sunday brought promises of a generator sooner rather than later, and then the slowly revealed joys (or rather horrors) of three phase electricity.

I still don’t understand why it is beyond the wit of man to bring the three phases into the compound, add them together, divide by three, and send them equally round the house. [My physics A-level is no help at all]. Instead, if one phase went off so did a third of the house. The fridge was on an extension lead for some time, so we could rush to plug it into an operational socket. Of course, once the generator was installed, we could relax a bit, though not totally. Sometimes it would come on when apparently all three phases were still running. Why? One trick of the EB is to split a phase, it seems, when the full current is shared between two phases – so the voltage drops below 180 which was the point at which our genset was programmed to start.

But when the genset came on, what a difference. Like the Hammer House of Horrors, the lights brightened and the fans accelerated – and the toast was brown and the kettle boiled twice as fast. It makes you realise how mollycoddled our electrical goods are back home, and exactly how much they can put up with when pushed.

The EB in the city have just as many challenges as their colleagues in the countryside. When Mr Bishop built his garden house on a 40 acre plot near the Adyar river, the electrical demand was for lighting and fans only. Later, in his garden, were built the villas of BishopGarden, each one with many more lights, and fans, and white goods. And then a/c’s became de rigueur. Now, villas are having other villas built in their gardens, and some villas are coming down and being replaced by 6 storey blocks of flats, each with many more …….. No wonder the power grid is under a strain. It is a marvel that it works at all.

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