This ca. 1910 postcard showing the City of Nelson's power plant was published by Howard A. Chapman of Victoria.

This ca. 1910 postcard showing the City of Nelson's power plant was published by Howard A. Chapman of Victoria.

Lights out for Nelson’s porch light policy

Nelson Hydro is pulling the plug on a free porch light policy that was once the city’s claim to electrical fame.

Nelson Hydro is pulling the plug on a free porch light policy that was once the city’s claim to electrical fame.

No one is exactly sure when it was adopted — or when it was repealed — but for decades a city ordinance read: “One 50-watt lamp or its equivalent shall be permitted to be used without charge if suspended outside the front door of each residence within the city.”

Its purpose was two-fold: it was a cheap form of street lighting and in the days when electricity was a status symbol, Nelson bragged that it was the City of Light.

That a municipality could afford to give away its self-generated power was considered so amazing it was mentioned in the New York Times, Saturday Evening PostChristian Science Monitor, and other publications.

(Despite this, it wasn’t unique to West Kootenay; the Nakusp Electric Light and Power Co., organized in 1920, offered a 25-watt porch light with free power for 10 years, provided customers paid $5 to install a separate circuit.)

When the policy was abandoned, no new unmetered porch light circuits were installed, but no attempt was made to replace existing ones.

It’s estimated as many as 200 Nelson homes still have them. The city’s new hydro services bylaw, however, indicates the utility wants to find and do away with them.

“Where unmetered porch lighting is found to be present, the owner or occupant must arrange to transfer the porch light circuit to the load side of the meter in accordance with current provincial electrical code regulations,” it says.

Although the porch lights cost the utility — by one estimate as much as $8,000 per year in lost revenue — Nelson Hydro says safety is their prime concern.

“It’s a fire hazard,” operations manager Mike Amos told 103.5 The Bridge this week. “I don’t want to see anyone’s house burn down.”

Amos says there have been dangerous situations as a result of overloaded porch light circuits: “Some people have phoned and said they’re having problems with low voltage and we’ve come and found a porch light circuit that has a freezer and Christmas lights attached to it.”

Amos adds that when they find an unmetered circuit in a home, they will rewire it to the metered section at no cost.

What Nelson Hydro hasn’t figured out yet is how to locate all those rogue circuits. Amos says they’re looking at a program to audit, inspect, and fix the problem, but it’s not that easy to set up.