Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Utility Services, Reliable and Otherwise

Something that came up as a sideline not too long ago was the reliability of services such as electricity, Internet service, and water.  I can't talk about phone service because as I've already explained, we don't have a land line.

Internet service
I can only talk personally about wireless service.  

We have service problems at least once a week (probably more often) when the server is down.  These "outages" can last from 5-10 minutes to hours, and are more often on the long side of that range.  But we seem to have been lucky at lest in April.  Lloyd Cripe of mentioned in an email update he sent out that his server was down more than it was up in April.  It can be extremely annoying, particularly if you're in the middle of a download.

The major provider of electricity here in this are of the province, anyway, is a private company called Union Fenosa.  I've already written about rates.  What I want to talk about now is reliability of the power supply.

We have power outages at least once a week, more frequently during the rainy season.  These last anywhere from a few minutes (dry season) to hours (often during the rainy season).  Since our stove and hot water are run off gas, it isn't usually a problem.  It does mean, of course, that we have to shut down our computers.  For those who are used to and depend on nearly uninterrupted Internet service, this is a problem, especially combined with frequent interruptions in the service itself.  For us, it can be annoying at times, but no really big deal.

In fact I have to say that the only time I was truly inconvenienced by a power outage was the day a few years ago when at last my copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince arrived (at that time, courier service time from the US was about 4 weeks).  I got home, eager to read it--and a few hours later, the power went out.  Not for just a few minutes but for 6-7 hours.

I read nearly the whole book by flashlight.  We Potter fans are tough.

Other than that?  No problema.  We've never lost food in our refrigerator or had any other associated problem with power outages.  Power surges due to lightning strikes, such as the last one when a transformer blew out?  Yes, but I've already talked about that.  That type of problem is relatively rare and occurs with about the same frequency that we experienced in the US.

For us, the much bigger deal is water.  It's truly surprising, but the availability and steady supply of potable water here in this area--and I would most emphatically include Boquete in this--is a problem.  One of the reasons I'm writing about this today is that I think we may have a break in our water lines, and I'm about to go out on a search for one.

There are several considerations here.  One is that, unlike the US, districts--as opposed to municipalities--are not required to supply water to individuals.  If you buy a lot, for instance, you'd better find out ahead of time whether or not you have water access.  Unlike the US, there are no strong disclosure laws here, and if you are suckered in to a deal without water--well, it's buyer beware and God made Americans to be sheep for sharp Panamanians to fleece.  Boquete is a source of many stories like this.

And just in passing, you'd better find out if a piece of property has just plain access rights.  We know of one American couple here that bought a piece of land in Potrerillos only to discover that they had no legal easement, and the owner was holding them hostage over access.  

Another problem is water pressure and availability of water during the dry season.  Practically as soon as we moved in to our rental house, our helpful neighbor warned us that the water supply could literally dry up during the dry season, and advised us to get a reserve water system, mostly due to low water pressure.  Within months, we did so, with a 400 gallon water tank, pump, the works.  When we moved into our house, we just had the whole system transferred over at minimum cost.

The reserve system was extremely valuable for another reason.  In our house, we have an energy-saving, on-demand gas hot water heater.  It needs, however, a minimum of 40 lbs of water pressure to function.  Only with the reserve system did we have enough pressure at any time for the hot water heater.

IDAAN is the national water service.  Some of the municipios, such as David, I assume, also have their own water service, but here we have to rely on IDAAN.

When we first started building, we had no water supply to the property.  For the first weeks, while we were building the bodega, twice a day I brought over three 55 gallon drums of water to the building site in our truck.  Later, thanks to our wonderful Panamanian friend who sold us our land, we had a temporary water supply from the ganadera next door.  One of the reasons why we had to rely on this water supply was that IDAAN, after first assuring us that we would have water, then decided that the water pressure from the nearest source was too low to get water to us--and left it at that.  So, the temporary solution which saved our skins.

But that was temporary.  After we moved into the house, we had to have a permanent source.   Again, to the rescue came our Panamanian friend who made all the arrangements to get us a water supply from  a hookup about a mile up the carretera from our house.  She did everything--figure out in conjunction with IDAAN where the connection could be, arrange for the installation, got a great deal on the PVC pipes, the whole thing.  We paid for half of it; she took the other half of the expenses because, I think, she felt partly responsible for the assurance that we would have water from IDAAN.

BUT--it was a Panamanian installation.  We were assured that the pipes would be buried at least a foot underground.  I was really busy at that time and didn't supervise the work.  As a result, when the first interruption in our water supply occurred--maybe about 6 weeks after we had the new water system--I discovered two ugly truths:
  1) The pipes were at best 6" under the ground and most were maybe 2"-3" underground--including where the pipe crossed underneath an access road.  Even 12" is questionable, given that during the rainy season, the water in the saturated ground tends to heave the pipes upward.
  2) All the PVC pipe used in the house is the heaviest-caliber pipe available--I bought it and I made sure of that.  Most of the PVC pipe used in our mile-long supply line of 3/4" PVC was the thinnest-caliber available, the standard Panamanian caliber.  Which is yet another reason to be your own purchasing agent if you're building.

I won't go into all our problems, which ranged from a cow putting a foot through one of the more exposed pipes, to breakage from flash floods where pipes cross drainage ditches to punctures from someone moving a fence over our water lines to workmen for the ganadera casually--and I swear deliberately--stepping on our shutoff valve and breaking it.  Never mind the day a backhoe accidentally ran up over a bank where a pipe was really only 2" under the surface and caused a break.  These are just the most memorable in a long, long list.  The reason why it's so long is that until late last year, we had breaks or leaks in the line just about exactly every 6 weeks.

Naturally, most of the problems occurred on Sunday, when there was no one around.  I quickly became an expert on repairing PVC pipe--so much so, that within a short time I had a small plastic tool box that carried various types of unions, elbows, a water shut-off valve, a can of PVC cement, a pair of pliers, and a small hammer.

Knowing that you have no water is one thing--finding the break is another.  Like everyone of my neighbors, in such circumstances, I "ride line" along our 1-mile pipe route over roads where, in the rainy season, I usually need 4-wheel drive to get out of the mud.

Whenever I'm looking for a break in the line, I'm always reminded of Western movies where the cowboys "ride fence", on their horse, leading a pack animal with spare barbed wire, etc.  Me, I ride line in our 4-wheel drive truck with long sections of  3/4" and 1/2" PVC pipe in the bed of the truck and my handy tool kit, hacksaw, and rags on the seat beside me.  I've learned to put up with getting drenched with water as I cut off the broken piece and make the final union with the new piece and the supply line.  I've been up to my ankles in water and have slid down short banks in the rainy season.  

If you live anywhere outside of an urban area, you'd better have all those skills and be prepared to have a generally unpleasant/uncomfortable experience.

In the nearly 3 years we've been here, I've had whole sections of pipe buried 18" underground encased in 1" PVC pipe and slowly replaced with 4- calibra PVC the old pipe as the breaks occur.  Cross your fingers with me--we haven't had a problem since last October, although I thought we did yesterday.

I should say--we haven't had a problem due to breaks in our line.  The IDAAN line is yet another source of breaks.

When the heavy rains come, the IDAAN lines come under tremendous stress from sudden surges of additional water.  These lines are never maintained--there are exactly 5 maintenance/repairmen for the entire province of Chiriquí--and the lines are not that robust.  many time during those surges, the 2" supply lines or even the 4" lines coming down from the mountain burst--and no one has water.

Then there was the three-day interruption last year when a backhoe that was excavating a new line for the ganadera actually fell into the ditch that held the main (and only) 4" IDAAN water line and broke a whole section plus a valve for which there was no replacement in the province.

You have a reserve water supply and you ride out minor upsets like this.  

Yesterday, when I started this post, we'd had over 24 hours of air in our water lines.  Normally, that means a major break in the main water supply, but we had full pressure, so it was something of a puzzle.

True to the cowboy fantasy, I got into our trusty truck, rode the line with Mary riding shotgun--and found no leak in our lines.  When that happens you just wait until the problem resolves itself. There is absolutely no point in calling IDAAN.  If I call anyone, it's our Canadian friends who live up in the pueblo itself or the Espinosas to find out what's happening there.   Most likely someone tapped into the main IDAAN line for a new connection and the air was introduced that way.

One of the nice things about having this new installation, though, is that the altitude difference between the connection and our house is great enough that there not only is no trouble with water pressure, but we also had to instal a pressure reducer.  So we have a constant pressure of about 50 lbs, more than adequate for our hot water heater.  Now we use the reserve pump going on as a signal that something's wrong somewhere with the water supply.

An American acquaintance of ours, after we first moved here, told us that two absolutely essential attitudes to survival here were patience and adaptability.  If patience were really required, believe me, I wouldn't be here.  I have very little.  I would say, rather, that you need acceptance and flexibility.  Both are vital.  If you live anywhere outside of a major urban area--and I mean even a short distance outside the municipio itself, you had better be prepared for problems.

Remember the old prayer, which I'll do my best to quote:  "Oh God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

And that's what you need, more than anything else, to be happy here in Panamá.

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