Articles

ONTARIO SCRAPS ITS HORSE-AND-BUGGY LIGHTS

For fifty years the rest of Canada has poked fun at Ontario’s flickering lights. Now, in the world’s biggest power conversion job, Ontario Hydro is spending two hundred millions to bring a million consumers up to date

GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON August 15 1951
Articles

ONTARIO SCRAPS ITS HORSE-AND-BUGGY LIGHTS

For fifty years the rest of Canada has poked fun at Ontario’s flickering lights. Now, in the world’s biggest power conversion job, Ontario Hydro is spending two hundred millions to bring a million consumers up to date

GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON August 15 1951

ONTARIO SCRAPS ITS HORSE-AND-BUGGY LIGHTS

GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON

IN 1947 the CBC broadcast a radio satire by Lister Sinclair called We All Hate Toronto. The story concerned an impulsive young Canadian named Charlie who. in spite of the warnings and pleadings of friends and relatives, decided to go on a trip to Toronto. Preparing for the expedition Charlie went to his local department store, where he was outfitted for living in Toronto. Among other things the store clerk recommended dark glasses.

“Why?” asked Charlie.

“Toronto electricity is a twenty - five cycle island,” said the clerk. “All the lights go flickertyflick. If you don’t have dark glasses your eyes’ll pop out of their sockets and roll around the joint like billiard balls.”

“Then I’ll take two pairs,” said Charlie.

“One’ll be enough,” the clerk said. “In a month you’ll be used to it, and in two months you’ll be completely blind.”

To the rest of Canada, outside southwestern Ontario’s 25-cycle power area, Sinclair’s five-yearold radio dig may seem obscure. That’s because almost every community in North America enjoys the flickerless benefits of electricity that alternates 60 cycles a second. But to eight hundred thousand consumers who have suffered the inconveniences of the outmoded Toronto - Niagara Falls - Windsor power system, the point is as sharp as an electric shock.

For one thing, flickering lights are now partly responsible for the largest, most troublesome and most expensive electrical contracting job ever undertaken—the Ontario Hydro Commission’s Frequency Standardization Program. During the next ten years, by converting the entire power system that feeds southwest Ontario, this program promises to take care of the last major electrical anachronism on the continent—current that alternates just 35 cycles slower than the continental standard.

To the layman the difference between 25 and 60 cycles may seem academic. Reduced to its simplest terms it means that modern-style current alternates quicker than the eye can see sixty times in one second. The old-fashioned kind, which alternates only twenty-five times a second, can be detected in the flicker of a light bulb. Ontario, being right beside Niagara Falls, where the first major alternating power was pioneered, got its electrical start around the turn of the century on the old-style power. A few years later most engineers conceded 60 cycles provided a better and cheaper power, and new communities began installing 60-cycle generators. As 60 became the established frequency other 25-cycle industrial areas converted, one by one, to the continental standard. Eventually southwest Ontario was left as the only large 25-cycle island in a 60-cycle sea.

In the last few years this situation has given the 25-cycle consumer more cause for headaches than flickering lights. Manufacturers and farmers have pointed enviously to the cheaper, more modern motors that would be available to them if their power were 60-cycle. Toronto housewives have had to pass up a long list of electric appliances designed only for the 60-cycle market. Many industries have been giving southwest Ontario the go-by, frightened by the cost of special equipment

For fifty years the rest of Canada has poked fun at Ontario’s flickering lights. Now, in the world’s biggest power conversion job, Ontario Hydro is spending two hundred millions to bring a million consumers up to date

required to use the ofF-standard power. People moving in and out of the area have had a large home appliance conversion bill on their hands every time their equipment moves with them. Last September, when accountant Tom Grinley moved from 60-cycle Belleville, Ont., to the 25-cycle Toronto suburb of Westmount, it cost him almost two hundred dollars to convert his washing machine and exchange his refrigerator. It would have cost more if he hadn’t decided to keep his 60-cycle record player, clock and fan until last spring when his neighborhood was switched to 60 cycles.

These are some of the reasons why Ontario Hydro finally decided in 1948 it could no longer remain the only major holdout in a modern electrical world. Hydro took a long hard look at the situation, calculated the cost at about two hundred million dollars, and called in an electrical contracting firm, the Canadian Comstock Company, to go to work on the actual changeover. Working at top speed, Comstock will take about ten years and—with supplies the way they are perhaps longer.

During that ten years every electrified house, barn, store and factory in the thirteen thousandsquare-mile area has to be combed, top to bottom, for an estimated five million pieces of equipment that must be modified, rebuilt or replaced before the job can be completed. Millions of new motors must be ordered, shipped and paid for by Hydro and installed by Comstock. Hundreds of engineers and electricians will travel hundreds of thousands of miles in more than fourteen hundred vehicles, ranging from jeeps to monstrous mobile trailer units, to carry out the mammoth remodeling scheme.

Already about one hundred and fifty thousand consumers have acquired the new 60-cycle look.

During the past two years housewives in London, industrialists in Windsor, store owners in Sarnia and farmers north of Toronto have watched t«lie army of men in red trucks march relentlessly, block by block, section by section, through the cities, towns and rural communities. They’ve seen their treasured electrical units ripped apart and stripped of their old mechanism, then reassembled in a couple of hours with good-as-new workings, all set to operate on the new power.

In their travels the workmen are called on to change thousands of different, kinds and styles of equipment in everything from electric door chimes to mammoth electric motors. In domestic conversion alone, they have to contend with one hundred and forty-seven different models of refrigerator, two hundred and forty-four different kinds of washing machine, one hundred and forty different makes of clock, and dozens of models of oil furnaces, radio gramophones, electric razors and so on. At least these are all standard models with regular engineering procedures laid down. The going gets tougher when engineers come in contact with the electrical hobbyist. A few weeks ago they went to one home where twenty-two items had to be converted — all home-made. In Kipling, 10 miles west of Toronto, one consumer had rigged an electric treadle to let his cat in and out of the back door. That had to he converted along with the rest of the household equipment.

To Tom Grinley’s household the whole conversion operation seemed simple enough. A Comstock truck rolled up to the house at 8.30 the morning of “Cut-Day” (Hydro’s name for the date of a power switch in any region). Two men pulled the power plugs from every piece of equipment due for conversion. Then one of them went after the Grinley oil burner, while the other took apart

the washing machine. A few minutes later two more men appeared and took away t he insides of Mrs. Grinley’s refrigerator. They were soon back with a new unit, which they fastened into place in fifteen minutes. Around 10.30 t he power was shut off by a man on top of a Hydro pole at the end of the block. The Grinley home had used its last 25-cycle power. An hour later 60 cycles was running through the wires and Mrs. Grinley dusted off her Belleville-bought record player, clock and fan, plugged them in and returned to her household routine. By noon there wasn’t a Comstock truck in sight. The Grinleys were converted. So was every other house on the block.

Three months earlier a Hydro man had called at the Grinleys’ to check the make, model and serial number of every appliance to be converted. Another called a week before Cut-Day to see if any new pieces had been added. These were the only contacts the Grinleys had with their power company before conversion started. But while they waited for their extra cycles Hydro was working on all the data picked up from their district.

The technical information went first to a group of engineers who checked details on the make and model of the three items listed from the Grinley residence—the refrigerator, oil furnace and washing machine. Sixty-cycle replacement parts were available for all these items, so orders for the motors went to the manufacturers who supplied the original models. From the manufacturers the parts were shipped to a warehouse, where they were marked with the Grinleys’ code number, and stored, ready for use on Conversion day.

In this case the job was simple, but not all households are that easy. One East York home with thirty-nine pieces

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Ontario Scraps Its Horse-and-Buggy Lights

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took longer to convert, and problems really set in when the converters hit a district where a red-hot salesman has sold the same model washing machine or refrigerator to every housewife in sight. Suddenly the manufacturer is faced with more parts orders than he can possibly fill before Cut-Day. For a number of engineering reasons CutDay is fixed and can’t under any circumstances be postponed, so Hydro has to find a solution.

When this situation arose with washing machines in the Toronto suburb of Scarboro, Hydro formed a “Tub Club,” sent all the women in the neighborhood to a Laundromat to do their weekly wash and footed the laundry bills until their washing machines were working on 60 cycles. In the rural district of Woodbridge, Hydro couldn’t get parts for a popular make of feed chopper. It solved the problem by mounting a feed chopper on the back of a truck, which toured the area grinding farmers’ feed.

Another hitch arises with some models of equipment too intricate to be changed on the spot, (¡ear-driven washers, hobby-shop power tools, and three-speed record changers usually are hauled off to a central service shop, where they’re converted and tested before being sent back. If the equipment is essential to the operation of a household, converters lend the consumer a 60-cycle model until his own is returned.

Still other pieces are obsolete and no replacement parts are obtainable for them. Items like a 1906 motor-driven Edison gramophone that turned up in one house would have been impossible to convert even twenty-five years ago, but it was in working order and Hydro was responsible for converting it. In such cases the consumer has an option of taking a cash settlement or trading in the old model on a new one. Usually this is fine with the consumer, but Hydro will long remember one formidable East York housekeeper who drove servicemen away from her unconvertible refrigerator with a kitchen broom. It was weeks before she finally agreed to relinquish her ancient model for one hundred and fifteen dollars.

Although few are as vehement as this consumer, the customers’ reactions to conversion are almost as varied as the equipment they own. Many an otherwise self-possessed housewife has expressed an earnest qualm on seeing the innards of her new washer strewn over the basement floor. One harried woman, confronted by this situation called Hydro to check on the qualifications of the workmen. After a talk with the office she seemed reassured, but rang off with the comment, “Well, I certainly hope they know what they’re doing. That machine set us back four hundred dollars two weeks ago!”

To soothe such housewives Hydro employs ten men to answer phone calls from the converted areas. They’ve handled as many as two hundred calls in a day-and almost every one means a personal visit to the consumer’s home to check the trouble. Complaints range all the way from worry over the fact that the car headlights weren’t converted to the problem of a flooded basement. In some cases a converted sump pump has backed up and flooded the cellar, but at least once Hydro was telephoned about a flooded cellar that had nothing to do with conversion work. The householder heard Hydro was good at handling waterlogged basements, so he thought he’d call for help.

Usually the trouble is nothing more

serious than a cord working loose from a wall plug, but Hydro tries to have a serviceman check every beef within two hours of getting it. Comstock has a short-wave radio transmitter set up next to Hydro’s complaint department, and as soon as the phone message has been screened by an engineer, it’s radioed to field headquarters for attention. There a Comstock workman or engineer is dispatched to check on the problem.

Sometimes the system works too fast. One phoneless consumer walked to the corner drugstore to place her trouble call and before she reached home again a service truck was parked in front of the door.

In spite of a constant barrage of crackpot complaints, Hydro has found many that are legitimate. The claims department has had to wrestle with such problems as damage to property, loss in production, even animal fatalities. One Markham farmer was paid for two cows electrocuted through faulty wiring in converting a milking machine. Hydro is still weighing the claim of a chicken farmer who contends that the gadget that dims the night lights in his henhouse would not work on 60 cycles and egg output dropped fifty percent until the trouble was overcome.

From the vast majority of consumers, however, Hydro hears not a word. Quite apart from the benefits they’ll enjoy from new-style power, many have cause to be grateful. One Woodbridge dairy farmer thanks 60 cycles for relieving him of his last handmilking chore. All but one of his herd

used to submit to a 25-cycle milking machine, but it took the new rhythm supplied by 60 cycles to convince the last reluctant cow.

Probably more antiquated electrical pieces have been given an extended lease on life by their new conversion parts than any repair man would have thought possible. Washers, refrigerators, record players—many about to groan their last and die have been saved by Comstock’s conversion fleet. As long as it’s in use and works at all, Hydro will convert it. Chances are it’s then good for several years’ service. Some dealers are complaining this is likely to cut their sales; but, with the wider variety of 60-cycle appliances available to converted consumers, Hydro is confident increased buying will make up for the loss.

The virtual disappearance of 25 cycles from the continent (one small area in California still uses it) will mark the end of one of the most unhappy compromises in the history of electrical science. The frequency was originally set in 1892 to settle the conflicting views of Britain’s Lord Kelvin and the Westinghouse Company. Kelvin was one of the consulting engineers for the Niagara Power Company, the first major North American power company to generate alternating current. He wanted the European standard of 50 cycles (which Europe still uses today). Westinghouse, which was manufacturing the generators, was holding out for 15. After a hectic debate at Niagara Falls, they compromised at 25.

During the next few years various parts of the continent tried frequencies ranging up to 133 cycles, but the Niagara companies stuck doggedly to 25.

Even so, Ontario Hydro might have escaped the present trouble and expense except for a quarter-million-dollar contract. When the Ontario Power Company was being formed in 1903, the chief engineers, two American brothers named Nunn, seriously considered producing 60-cycle power. By that time this was the frequency voted most likely to succeed 25 cycles. At the critical moment, however, an American power-distributing company offered to buy a quarter million dollars worth of electricity from the new company if it could supply 25 cycles. That offer made the difference, and 25-cycle generators were ordered. When the Ontario Hydro Commission bought the Ontario Power Company in 1917, the old frequency was firmly established, and southwest Ontario was in for forty years of flickering lights.

In 1926 Hydro considered changing the system to catch up with progress, but the scheme was considered financially impractical—even though it could have been managed for a fraction of its present cost. Other off-standard areas had converted or were converting to 60 cycles, but it was still possible to operate a 25-cycle area without too many serious inconveniences. After World War Two the deciding factor against conversions was the early threat of World War Three. That very possibility, however, emphasized the need for conversion. A single bomb dropped on the powergenerating plants at Niagara could paralyze the vast industrial area of southwest Ontario, since its own power source would be cut off and it could not use 60-cycle power that other sources might provide.

In spite of the apparent advantages to industry of the power switch, it is from industrialists that Hydro has been getting its stiffest resistance. Part of the reason is cost. Unlike the domestic consumer, who gets his conversion free, a large industrial plant must pay about one third of the cost. The conversion cost in some plants runs to almost a million dollars.

Converting a factory differs considerably from a normal domestic conversion. For the industrial job, a conversion. engineer is sent to the plant, sometimes months ahead of Cut-Day. There he works with the company’s own technicians. Working nights and week ends, they change the power, item by item, trying to prevent any holdup in production. Often this calls for considerable ingenuity.

When oil-well machinery was converted at Petrolia, a few miles east of the St. Clair River, engineers faced the problem of keeping oil pumps working at a certain speedcarefully calculated to compensate for water seepage in the oil bed. If the pumps are stopped for any length of time, the water is likely to ruin production for months; if they pump too quickly, the bed may run dry. In converting the motor for a pump it was necessary to adjust it to the correct speed. While the motor was being converted and adjusted engineers had crews working each pump in turn by hand, with a “coxswain” beating the proper time for them. The job was completed without the loss of a drop of oil.

After converting half-a-million items, conversion engineers have learned that anything can crop up and probably will during the next eight years. But to many consumers it will be worth the trouble if only to see the last of flickering lights—and the jokes that go with them.

As for the Ontario Hydro Commission—after spending two hundred million dollars in ten years, it will be disappointed if the flickerty-flick gag isn’t as dead as 25-cycle power. +