If an ice storm or other calamity should happen to cut off Estherville's power, how long would it take to restore it?
Estherville Rotarians Thursday learned the answer to that question - and a lot others - when they toured the city power plant.
Electric plant manager Bret Mace showed Rotarians the plant and the mammoth engines that stand by, ancient sentinels of the past, still keeping guard over Estherville's power grid.
"Our number-one purpose is keeping the lights on in town," said Mace.
Keeping the lights on started in 1894 when Estherville residents voted to have the city produce power, the same year the north end of the power plant was built. First it was steam power, transitioning to diesel in 1906.
The four mammoth engines in the plant are for backup purposes only now, said Mace. The city buys its power from Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative which in turn buys any power the city generates from the engines. Mace said the Iowa Lakes Community College wind turbine is on the industrial loop and a lot of time will carry the whole loop.
The four big engines - each the size of a commuter bus - date from 1946, 1960 and two from 1969. Mace said the city is now spending over $400,000 for catalytic converters to meet an Environmental Protection Agency mandate to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent by May 1.
If that sounds steep, well, maintaining the engines in itself is expensive. Mace said it costs $20,000 to change the oil in one of the engine, but fortunately oil changes are required just once every 20 years.
An they're mammoth. Mace said the pistons are 600 pounds each.
They're getting increasingly hard to find, too. Mace said the 1946 Norberg engine is getting outdated and that a lot of the engines are shipped overseas. He said nothing of the same size is manufactured in the US anymore. Anything of a similar size has to be imported.
Mace said the engines run 20-30 hours a year but could run 500 hours yearly. They can run on both diesel or natural gas.
And oh, by the way, it would take 40 minutes to do one loop - or about half the town - and 90 minutes to do the rest.