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A messy ‘junk drawer’ can be more dangerous than you think, and other techy tidbits

  • Nashua firefighters battle a kitchen fire at 18 Shedds Ave. on March 27 that was caused by loose batteries in a drawer. Courtesy—Nashua Fire Rescue


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Sportswriters long ago perfected a clever trick called the “random thoughts column,” a sort of journalistic tapas bar that collects news tidbits that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Since every newspaperman secretly wants to be a sportswriter, I figured I’d try this myself. So today’s Granite Geek will feature junk-drawer batteries that want to kill you, what FairPoint’s tippy-toe quiet departure says about landlines and a convoluted Massachusetts program that will define our region’s power grid.

9-volt can give a jolt

I have three “junk drawers” in my kitchen – one for various cooking tools I don’t know how to use (Himalayan salt plank scrubber brush???); one for string and cords and rope and the occasional bootlace; and one for electrical items, including batteries.

That last one might kill me.

The Nashua Fire Department said a March 27 fire at a home on Shedd Avenue was caused by “loose storage of batteries in a kitchen drawer.” And this isn’t the first time: A 2012 house fire in Nashua was caused by the same thing.

Nobody was hurt either time, but it’s still kind of scary.

The culprit both times was a 9-volt battery, the rectangular-ish batteries with two snap connectors on top. To use the electricity-is-like-water metaphor, these batteries have more “internal pressure” than cylindrical batteries, which are usually 1.5 volts, to power certain types of devices.

The problem is those side-by-side connectors. In a junk drawer it’s relatively easy for a piece of metal to touch both at once, creating a circuit with a 9-volt jolt.

“Maybe there’s a key, maybe a paper clip – when they touch both, there’s a spark,” said George Walker, deputy fire chief in Nashua.

By comparison, it takes a very convoluted bit of metal to touch both ends of a AA battery at once.

The lesson? Don’t leave 9-volt batteries loose in that junk drawer. In fact, you shouldn’t leave any batteries loose, just in case.

“When I first learned this, I made my wife take all the batteries out of the drawer,” Walker admitted.

Hello, Central?

When North Carolina’s FairPoint Communications bought Verizon’s landline business in northern New England in 2008, everybody freaked out.

Reaction to the departure of the last vestige of Ma Bell was so intense that at the Telegraph in Nashua, I oversaw a year-long series just to print people’s comments. (They weren’t complimentary.)

The reaction was worsened by a clumsy transition in the billing and customer service departments, but deep down it was fueled by a feeling that something momentous was happening, a real tectonic shift in New Hampshire life.

Fast forward to 2017 and FairPoint is selling out to Consolidated Communications of Illinois. Freaking-out-ness is nowhere to be seen.

What’s different? Cellphones.

In 2008, landline phones were declining but were still our dominant long-distance communication mode – after all, you could still find pay phones all over the place. The idea of somebody coming in and messing with this century-old network was scary.

Today, not so much. Nobody really cares that the phone book is disappearing, and if our landlines get a bit wonky, we can live with it as we walk around looking for a better signal.

This may not be an entirely good idea – landlines are regulated, giving us an indirect say in their operation, while cellphones aren’t, and there’s a problem with 911 identification in mobile phones – but change marches on.

Who cares about Mass.? The power grid

New Hampshire has been arguing so long about the visual effect of the proposed Northern Pass transmission lines in our state that some of us (who, me?) have forgotten to look south.

This changed last week when National Grid announced a proposed transmission line that would, like Northern Pass, carry about 1,000 megawatts of Quebec hydro- and windpower into New England.

National Grid could have announced this plan years ago, since it owns most of the power lines, but came forward now only because a 2015 Massachusetts law requires the Bay State to buy scads of large-scale hydropower as part of a push for energy diversification and clean energy. (Some people don’t consider large hydro very clean, but that’s another debate.)

This boosted the business case for spending $1 billion or more on transmission lines connecting south, hence National Grid’s interest.

The Massachusetts Department of Energy has just released solicitation details for the project, telling companies what information they must provide when they make a bid that will say, in essence, “We promise to deliver X amount of hydropower electricity at Y dollars per megawatt-hour over Z years.” Northern Pass will also bid into the project, and Massachusetts will choose the winning companies later this year, with power set to flow by the end of 2022.

Yes, 2022. As Northern Pass has shown, it can take a really long time to get electricity from one place to another if you have to build transmission towers along the way.

Incidentally, the prices that Massachusetts is willing to pay for this hydropower will go a long way toward saying whether Northern Pass or National Grid’s Power Link project will actually get built.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)