Subzero Temperatures Are Fun

You have two options when living in the Upper Midwest: become friend with winter or at least come to terms with it. I fall into the latter category. Winter is my favorite season. Perhaps by necessity I have developed a fascination with cold weather and the effects it has on everyday thing.

Consider the electronics we take for granted every day. Do you know what the lowest temperature at which your mobile phone or laptop will function? Such information often doesn’t make it into consumer product specifications. I did some digging and it seems most laptops are designed to function in temperatures as low as 50 °F. That’s adequate for environments where the climate is usually controlled such as a home or office. It’s not adequate for the -30 °F temperature to which I work up yesterday morning.

This topic becomes much more interesting on a large scale. Take Texas for example. The state is experiencing a typical Upper Midwestern winter right now. That’s a problem because a typical Upper Midwestern winter there extremely rare so nothing is designed with such conditions in mind. Many people in the state are experiencing blackouts. A lot of people, myself included, have asked why the power grid was so severely impacted by this weather since the same power generation technology is used in environments that get just as cold. Why would a wind turbine in Texas freeze when one in Minnesota that regularly experiences even colder temperatures doesn’t? There are many possibilities. The first that comes to mind is lubricant. It’s quite possible that the lubricants being using in wind turbines in Texas turn into a gel at subzero temperatures. Since Texas so seldomly experiencing subzero temperatures nobody likely stopped to consider the possibility.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) event notification report for today notes that a nuclear reactor in Texas was taken offline because two of its feedwater pumps failed. Could cold weather interfere with a feedwater pump? Quite possibly. Depending on the design of the pump, the source of the water, and other factors it’s quite feasibly that a feedwater pump could fail if the water source or intake froze. Water freezing inside of a pump is even feasible (although flowing water doesn’t freeze as easily as standing water).

Backup diesel generators could also be troublesome in Texas at the moment. There are two types of diesel. #1 diesel tends to work better at lower temperatures whereas #2 diesel tends to work better at higher temperatures. Because #2 diesel tends to turn into gel at cold temperatures, here in the Upper Midwest during winter months we mix #1 and #2 diesel or include additives in our diesel to prevent it from gelling up. I’m guessing the same isn’t done in Texas since there normally isn’t a need. That means backup diesel generators, which are needed now because mains power is unreliable, could also be unavailable.

I wish I had more to offer than observations that I find interesting, but truth be told there likely isn’t anything anybody can do for Texas until the temperature goes up. The fixes necessary to make a state like Texas capable of weathering (pun intentional) these conditions require redesigning almost everything, which is likely too tall of a task for anybody to undertake and too costly for how rare these conditions do occur.

One thought on “Subzero Temperatures Are Fun”

  1. I am in MN and we do a fair bit of work with a couple companies in Willistion, ND. Much of the equipment there comes from Texas, and is built for Texas weather. The problems you are describing (and more) are common with equipment that is not designed for cold weather, moreso when the people who are doing the design have not experienced the strange things equipment does in cold weather that you wouldn’t even to know to look for without that experience.
    Things leak that would otherwise seal, things that move when at similar temperatures can now easily have a 100 degree F differential and now bind…
    We had some compactors designed in Georgia at a local warehouse that burst the high pressure steel lines when the super thick frozen oil couldn’t escape through the relief valve at -25F… But hey, those out of state install guys that didn’t even hook up the tank heaters were sure cheaper!

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