Flaky power costs business big bucks

There have been 16 power outages in the Whitehorse area since January 1st. And it's cost Gordon Clark more than $15,000. "The latest one, on Sunday, blew up my thermostats," said the owner of Boston Pizza.

There have been 16 power outages in the Whitehorse area since January 1st.

And it’s cost Gordon Clark more than $15,000.

“The latest one, on Sunday, blew up my thermostats,” said the owner of Boston Pizza.

Clark couldn’t control the temperature in the restaurant and his beer cooler was zapped out of commission.

He’s ripping out the fried thermostats and putting in manual ones that will, hopefully, survive the surges.

That fix alone was $978.

The previous outage blew out his lighting control panel—a $4,000 hit.

And earlier this year, an outage discombobulated a $2,000 circuit board for the restaurant’s induction cooker.

“I have spent $10,000 on parts alone,” said Clark.

“And another $5,000 on labour and repairs.”

Before taking over Boston Pizza, Clark ran Tim Hortons.

“I’ve been in the business here for 16 years,” he said.

“And I’ve never seen anything like this.

“It’s just insane—I can’t get through a week without some damage.”

Westmark Whitehorse general manager Heather McIntyre has been in the territory 26 years.

“And I don’t ever recall there being this many power surges and outages,” she said.

“It seems to be escalating.

“And the worst part is, (Yukon Energy and Yukon Electrical) don’t seem to know why.”

When power goes out, the Westmark gets dark.

“There’s no windows in our hallways,” said McIntyre.

And during an outage the emergency doors swing closed.

“With all those doors shut it makes it that much darker,” she said.

“It’s a big safety issue for us, with our customers and employees.”

In the winter, heating is another major factor.

“The big outage in January, a couple years ago, certainly was frightening,” said McIntyre. “It was winter and it lasted a very long time.”

The Westmark, and other parts of downtown, were spared the last outage on Sunday evening.

It was lucky, said McIntyre. “Because at that time we had 450 people seated for the Frantic Follies, and we would have had to evacuate them out of there.

“So it really does become a safety issue.”

The outages are having negative effects on tourism, she added.

“These visitors go away thinking, ‘Gosh, the electrical is quite unstable there.’

“It’s certainly not a good impression to have.”

A backup generator to run the hotel would have to be enormous, and would cost a fortune. Finding space for it would be a problem, said McIntyre.

“But we’ll have to look at a generator, if it continues to worsen.”

Nothing’s perfect, she added.

“There will always be times when things fail—it’s just that it seems to be more frequent and they haven’t gotten a handle on what’s happening.

“The most recent outage was caused by a rodent or something in the Raven’s Ridge area, but then the Mountainview substation failed and they don’t know why.

“It seems like we’re really susceptible to rodents.”

The power surges and brownouts are also taking a toll on equipment, said McIntyre.

“Every time you turn around, another computer isn’t working.”

To protect their computer system, Alpine Veterinary Medical Centre invested in a backup power supply.

“If we didn’t we’d have so many fried computers it’s not even funny,” said vet Kim Friedenberg on Thursday.

The backup supply switches on whenever the power fails or flicks out for a minute, saving equipment from the surges.

“I don’t even want to know how much it cost,” said Friedenberg.

Alpine’s power backup has switched on 13 times in the last four weeks, he said.

“We get lots of brownouts in this area.

“We know it’s just a fact of life.”

Luckily, animal surgery is performed in a room with a big window, and most of the equipment runs on air, said Friedenberg.

“So we are pretty self-sufficient.”

But the outages “are a little frustrating,” he said.

The Whitehorse hospital also has backup power.

“So critical care and patient care areas aren’t affected,” said hospital spokesperson Val Pike. “The biggest inconvenience is going around rebooting all the equipment.

“And when they’re frequent, it starts to cause extra wear and tear on the equipment.”

The Whitehorse airport also has backup power for essential services, like its runway lights and navigation systems, said airport manager John Rogers.

But all the security equipment stops working, said security manager Paranjit Grewal.

However, there’s never been a plane delayed by an outage, he said.

“We have a contingency plan.”

The security crew searches hand luggage and passengers manually.

“And we do random searches of the checked bags,” said Grewal. “It’s a lot more work.”

Unfortunately, not every business can afford a contingency plan.

In October, Coasters bar hired the Real McKenzies, a Scottish punk band from Vancouver.

It was a soldout show with a lineup down the block.

At midnight, just as the Real McKenzies took the stage, the power went out.

The band attempted an acoustic set using borrowed guitars, but in the packed bar, only the first few rows could hear the unamplified musicians.

Angry customers demanded their money back.

By the time the power came back on, the crowd of 300 had dwindled to 20.

“We lost thousands,” said Coasters entertainment manager Jonas Smith.

“And we’d flown the six-piece band here.”

The Real McKenzies was only able to play a 20-minute set before the bar closed for the night.

The outages also wreak havoc on all the debit machines, said Smith.

A customer comes to pay their bill—they don’t have cash and can’t get any because the ATMs are down, and the cash register can’t even tally the tab, he said.

Grocery stores are also hit hard.

“We have to shut down,” said Riverdale Super A manager Cliff Schultz.

And the gas bar shuts down too.

“We have to kick everyone out and lock the doors.”

And after each outage, the store has to hire refrigeration guys to come in and reset all its thermostats.

It’s costing the store.

“We’re losing quite a bit,” said Schultz.

“It’s pretty upsetting.”

But not everyone is losing money.

Erik’s Audiotronic has been selling plenty of surge protectors lately.

“Yukon Energy is helping us out there,” said general manager Kirk Burke.

“Lots of times, especially in Whitehorse, those things are worth their weight in gold.”

A good surge protector runs anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000.

And Erik’s is selling lots “because the residents know what kind of situation we’re faced with here,” said Burke.

The top three causes of outages are winter weather (frost and snow), interference like birds and animals, and loss of supply from Yukon Energy, said Yukon Electric’s operations superintendent Jay Massie.

Yukon Energy is only responsible for four major outages in 2009, said spokesperson Janet Patterson.

Major outages are blackouts that affect all, or a major portion of the WAF grid, in southern Yukon.

There have been more outages that “only affected a small number of rural customers,” she said, in an e-mail.

The other outages fall under Yukon Electrical Company Ltd.‘s jurisdiction.

Equipment issues are responsible for “the higher than normal outages in 2008 and early 2009,” wrote Patterson. And these “have all been addressed and we are continuing to work through a list of maintenance projects that should improve reliability even more.”

Although there have been a significant number of outages since the Minto mine was hooked up to the grid in mid-November, the two are unrelated, added Patterson.

“In spite of what some of your readers might think, the Minto mine was not the cause of any outages,” she wrote in the e-mail.

“Also, Yukon Energy sympathizes with the business community; we understand that outages can mean lost revenues for small businesses.”

Yukon Energy can’t admit any culpability, said Clark.

“Because if it did, it’d have a lineup of people outside with big bills.”

Clark has been in talks with a lawyer.

“I can’t take it on alone,” he said.

“But a bunch of high-profile businesses could get together and take on Yukon Energy.”

“This has been the worst season ever,” he said.

“And I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at