Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Utilities Conundrum

Summer is upon us and the intense heat is only one of the issues we must face on a daily basis.  As is the case in cities and towns across the world, when the heat kicks in, the air conditioning gets cranked up.  Rolling brown outs and even the occasional black out (anyone remember the black out of 2003  that affected a large swath of the East Coast?) are common in even the most highly developed parts of the world. 

Big Blue
During the heyday of communism in the 1950s, hydro-electric dams were built throughout Albania to provide electricity to rapidly expanding mines and factories.  Unfortunately, as Albania sunk deeper into her self-imposed isolationism, maintenance on these structures came to a standstill and we are still living with these repercussions today.  In Albania, rolling blackouts and the corresponding power surges are such a common occurrence that visitors are encouraged to “carry a torch” with them at all times.  We have experienced our share of questionable flickering and sparks flying off of power lines since we have arrived.  Prior to our arrival we had heard that the house was equipped with its own generator but no one could prepare us for the sight of big blue.  Yes, our generator, which really is the size of a VW bug, has its own name. 

During the hours I hear Big Blue kicking in at regular intervals.  To date, we haven’t experienced any debilitating power surges but we have all of our electronic equipment plugged into surge protectors to be safe and we are especially glad that we splurged and added a power surge clause to our USAA renter’s insurance policy.   Yes, they offer such a clause which makes me realize that the problem must also be common in places other than Albania.

the main water distiller
The other summer issue we face is the non-potable water supply throughout the country.  Older Albanians refer to it as Hoxha’s revenge, a reference to the Albania’s infamous dictator who ruled Albania with an iron fist from the 1940s until his death in 1985.  A few people will tell you that the tap water is fine to drink and I’m sure that the majority of native Albanians do drink it straight from the tap.  As Americans, we have been warned not to drink it straight from the tap.  Our house has been equipped with not one, but two water distillers (one for each kitchen!) from which we get all of our drinking and cooking water.  (As an added precaution we must soak all of our fruits and vegetables in a distilled water and bleach solution before eating them and we are discouraged from eating any raw fruits and vegetables that we have neither prepared ourselves or completely trust the cooking source.  This includes dining out in most restaurants).  Sidney has always been fascinated with all things water so I am facing the dual struggle of not allowing him to drink any of his bath water (undistilled) and keeping him from exploring the tap on the distiller.  At the moment I’m not having a lot of success on either of these fronts.

The water tank which is all too frequently empty
Before the water even gets into our distillers it must travel a rather indirect path from its source, through the City of Tirana’s Public Works water system and into the water holding tank in our backyard that takes up the majority of our green space.   From there it enters our house and goes into the individual water heaters that supply each of the two kitchens, the laundry room, and five bathrooms or into one of the two water distillers.  This works when there is both electricity coming into the house (hence the generator) and there is actually enough water in the City’s water supply to make this happen. 

As we have already discovered early on a Saturday morning, it is a common occurrence for the water supply to run dry during the summer months.  This is actually a problem for our entire neighborhood but no one told us this.  Of course we only discovered that we didn’t have any water when I went to turn on the shower and no water came out.  When we do run out of water, the Embassy’s water truck will refill our tank but only if we tell them it is necessary.  In the typical Albanian way, there isn’t a gauge on the tank that lets us know when we are running low on water.  Our predecessors had warned us that this could happen and suggested we follow their lead by rigging a fishing pole over the top of the water tank so we can easily gauge how much water we have.  For some reason they took their pole with them when they left and we hadn’t felt a sense of urgency to replace it yet.  We now have water again but have added a fishing rod to the top of our shopping list.  In the mean time, we are on an automatic delivery schedule with the Embassy for twice a week.  There is no word from the City of Tirana as to when the water might start flowing from their taps again.

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