Alarm bells are ringing…or not

January 16, 2009

In order to set the stage to understand this strange tale, you need to know that almost everything is South Africa is ringed with razor wire, electric fences, motion detectors, metal spikes, gates and locks. Generally they are not all present simultaneously (although sometimes they are), but usually at least one of these crime deterrents are in place in a house and generally several (gates, motion detectors and alarms for example). Our house is no exception.

The first essential training upon arrival to the house was how to arm and disarm the alarm system which is tied to an armed response team. Any triggered alarm results in a call within a minute or so, followed by an armed response if the answer to the call is not satisfactory. The armed response business is doing very well, thank you, with a host of private security companies vying for business all across the land. Residents are comforted knowing that even the local police stations are protected by private security firms (true!)

Which leads us to:

Day 1: Augustine’s arrive in the afternoon on 1/14 and are given a crash course in arming and disarming alarm sytem. While unpacking, I make the Fateful Decision to plug a US power strip with a SA adaptor into the plug. I know that SA uses 240V and the US uses 120V power, but I also know that most current generation electronic devices have the capability of operating using either voltage. This particular brand new device does not which I found out on Day 2, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The results of the Fateful Decision were as follows: the overhead lights in the house were unaffected, but all of the wall outlets were powerless. This included not only the power strip, but the refrigerator, microwave, TV, DVD player and all floor and desk lamps. Figuring this out took a while, since I did not know what worked and what didn’t, but eventually we came to the conclusion that all of the wall outlets were nonfunctional.The other major consequence of the Fateful Decision was that the outbuilding which is really a small apartment on the property was now without power, the consequences of which would not be obvious for several hours.

Since we were new to the house and the country, we did not know where the circuit breakers for the house were located, and even if they are the same as in the US (they aren’t). About 45 minutes after the Fateful Decision, the security company called informing us that they were receiving an notice that the system was not powered and whether we were alright. (Forty five minutes!?!) Why? Because many criminals cut the power to the house before breaking in which is why most alarm systems have a battery back-up.12V lead/acid rechargable it turns out…like a small car battery. After trouble shooting with the security company, I discovered where the transformer for the alarm system is located and that the power was definitely out to all of the outlets. That is when Fateful Decision #2 occurred.

There is a main power box on the outside of the house where the line voltage comes in off of the street. It is made out of rotting plywood in case you are an electrical inspector. I decided to “reboot” the house and turn off all of the power and then turn it back on.  It didn’t solve the problem.

This is where things get dicey. After calling back the security company, they told me that the battery back up last between 6 – 18 hours depending on the quality of the battery, but that once the battery is fully discharged, it cannot be recharged and will need to be replaced. Cost: R180 (~$18). We went to bed uneasy, but assured that the battery would protect the house through the night.

Day 2: At 3:30 am, the alarm sounds waking Rebekah and myself up. Not a full scale panic alarm which would have woken up the entire neighborhood (we have now heard it several times), but a repetitive beeping. It stops. I encourage Bekah to go back to sleep, and do the same myself. Just as a shut my eyes, the exterior lights begin flashing on and off and I can hear a creaking sound outside. I stare in vain through the blinds, but do not see anything, but hear the neighborhood dogs barking. The lights flick on and off three or four times and then stop. Now I am in full scale alert.

Should I wake everyone and bring them into our room? How can we be getting robbed on our very first night in South Africa? Maybe someone was casing the joint and saw that we were new and did not really know how to use the alarm. Maybe they saw the 10 suitcases full of American gear. I listened intently, but did not hear anything else, but  darkness can play strange tricks on one’s mind. I lay awake until 6 am when I finally dozed off after exhaustion from the 36 hour travel schedule the prior two days.

The Aftermath: A comedy of errors which in retrospect makes perfect sense when everything is pieced together. The Fateful Decision did indeed trip the circuit of not only the outlet that the power strip was on, but on the outlets for the entire house (which are actually on three different circuits). An electrician stopped by first thing in the morning and reset the circuits and we tested the power strip under controlled conditions and it was indeed the offending party. The lights flickering and creaking noise? That was the husband renting the outbuilding. When the alarm started beeping, he had deactived the alarm as it was also going off in his apartment. When he woke up to turn off the alarm, he realized that the power was out and he went outside to reboot the house and the creaking was the aforementioned plywood box on the circuit breaker. The next morning the alarm was completely off–battery drained. More stories to be told about my first drive and the discussion that ensued in the battery shop, but to make a long story long, the alarm is now functioning three days later albeit R500 poorer.

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4 Responses to “Alarm bells are ringing…or not”

  1. Deb Sweigart Says:

    Wow! Nothing like breaking in a new house, huh? I’m glad to hear that you are okay and “settling” in to your new house. On the light side, it sort of sounds like you’ve been living the high life on a southern estate for a few months and have forgotten how to be a “home” owner vs. a southern plantation owner : )
    Truly glad you guys are safe and sound – keep posting!

  2. Angie Says:

    So glad to hear you made it safely albeit under such “alarming” circumstances. 🙂 Like Deb said, do keep posting.


  3. […] you have not read Brian’s recent post from In To Africa, please do… He did a good job explaining some of our first security […]


  4. […] a land of peace where black outnumbers white so greatly?…We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold onto our […]


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