The Science Behind Balloon-Caused Outages

Boquet of balloons near power linesOn a hot summer day, you’re barbecuing in the backyard to celebrate a birthday with family and friends. The yard is filled with great food, crepe decorations, and birthday balloons. In good spirits, your friend hands a shiny metallic balloon to your young nephew, who promptly releases the balloon into the sky.

As you look up, the balloon quickly approaches a power line just above the backyard. The balloon makes contact. Suddenly, there is a flash, with sparks shooting in every direction, and the power goes out throughout the neighborhood.

Why does this happen? The shiny balloon is made of a material called Mylar. While Mylar is a nonconductive plastic, the external coating of this type of balloon contains metal, making it a conductor of electricity. When the balloon’s conductive coating hits the active electrical line, this creates a momentary spike in electricity and short‑circuits the power line, resulting in potential outages, fires, and damage to equipment. The explosive reaction often resembles this clip of a Mylar balloon hitting a power line in Long Beach, California.

In addition to its dangerous coating, a Mylar balloon is also more likely to run into a power line than any other type of balloon, such as a latex balloon. The metal coating makes the balloon airtight, preventing the helium from escaping through the material and allowing the balloon to stay inflated for up to two weeks longer than other balloons. This significantly increases the chances of power line contact. While any helium balloon can create damage from hitting an electrical line, Mylar balloons tend to be the worst.

To avoid unnecessary power outages, damage, and injuries, follow these precautionary steps when celebrating with helium balloons:

  • Keep balloons indoors when possible
  • Tie down balloons with a weight
  • Never release balloons outside
  • Puncture balloons before disposing of them

If you see a balloon stuck in a power line, don’t try to remove it or touch the power equipment. Call our Utility Control Center at (408) 615-5640 for assistance.

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Brighten up your holidays with home energy efficiency and safety tips

The holiday season brings bright decorations, holiday cooking, visits from family and friends, and festive gatherings – which can also mean an increase in home energy use. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season also makes energy safety more important. Did you know electrical accidents and home fires occur most frequently from December through February? We’re here to help with tips for keeping your home bright, efficient, and safe.

Lighting 

2017 tree with LEDs
Holiday tree with energy efficient LED lights

ENERGY STAR-certified LED lights are perfect for those looking for festive decorations without a spike in energy use. LEDs use 70 percent less energy than traditional lights and last up to 10 times longer.

Ensure your holiday lights are safe by checking each set of lights for frayed wires or damages before use. LEDs run at cooler temperatures so they are less likely to start a fire, but no matter what type of lights you use, it’s important to turn them off before going to bed or leaving the house.

For more helpful tips on using LEDs, read our Holiday LED Guide.

Fireplace

A cozy fire in the fireplace can create holiday cheer, but as much as 80 to 90 percent of the heat produced by a wood-burning fireplace can escape through the chimney if used ineffectively. To keep heat inside your home, close the flue damper when the fireplace isn’t in use. The damper should only be opened when a fire is burning.

For more helpful tips on fireplace dampers, visit our Fireplace Efficiency Guide.

Managing Electricity Use

With extra decorations and social gatherings in the home, high electricity bills can be prevented by choosing efficient lighting and decorations. You can also manage energy use by using timers to turn lights off in the late evening.

For more tips on holiday electrical safety, visit the Electrical Safety Foundation International.

Your local power grid – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

No one likes an unexpected surprise like a car breakdown or a heater that suddenly stops working. That’s why most of us do preventative maintenance on our cars and home. It’s the same logic and due diligence that we apply when we perform inspections on our equipment and repair or replace items like power poles when needed.

Many of our power poles and cross arms have held up for more than 40 years, but it’s time to be sure they remain up to the job of reliably carrying electricity to our customers. We’ve contracted with Osmose Utilities Services to perform inspections on all of our power poles over the next five years to improve reliability and perform preventative maintenance.

Customers affected by this important effort are being notified by letter several weeks prior to work in their area. In some cases Osmose will need to access backyards to perform the inspection. We know privacy is very important, so as a courtesy Osmose will first knock on the door to let you know they need to enter your property. If no one answers the door, Osmose will enter the backyard and perform the power pole inspection. If the gate is locked and inspectors cannot access the power pole, they’ll leave a door hanger asking for you to contact SVP with a time to complete the inspection.

Working hours are 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, Monday through Friday and each inspection can take 20-40 minutes. Residents may also see SVP crews in neighborhoods for Saturday appointments. Osmose inspectors will have identification indicating they are a contractor for the City of Santa Clara. It’s always a good idea to ask to see the ID, or call us if you are unsure.

We‘re doing everything possible to minimize the impact of this critical maintenance work and we apologize in advance for any inconvenience this might cause. Customers with questions or concerns are welcome to contact us at (408) 244-7283.

This work increases the reliability of your power. As with a car or a home, we feel that it is wise to inspect, maintain and/or repair equipment rather than wait until there’s a problem that could have been prevented.

Keep Your Home Safe With These Electrical Safety Tips

May is National Electrical Safety Month, and it’s a great time to take a look around your home to eliminate any potential hazards to you, our family or your home from faulty or overloaded electrical outlets and devices. A few simple precautions can mean a world of difference. For instance:

  • Smoke marks on outlet covers or a burning odor are the warning signs of potential trouble.
  • Use a good surge protector to minimize risk. It will trip and cut power to a circuit if it becomes overloaded.
  • Never staple or use nails or tacks to attach electrical cords to a wall or baseboards.
  • Locate your circuit breaker and switch the power off before starting an electrical job.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) has more tips for making your home safe, and you can watch a fun video we made to remind you about home safety and electricity.

Warming Up Safely With a Space Heater

space-heaterSometimes it makes sense to warm up just a small area like an office or bedroom rather than turn on your central heating system. Portable, or room, heaters can effectively and efficiently heat smaller areas of a home or business.

You’ll want to remember that space heaters, even though small, use a significant amount of electricity. With a typical 1500-watt unit, for instance, it will cost you about 16 cents per hour. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you leave a portable heater on for several hours a day or use multiple heaters, it adds up. Smart use of a space heater can save you money compared to using central heating, but being cautious about extended use is important.

Here are some tips on how to manage electricity costs if you use a space heater:

  • Remember to turn it off when you leave the room.
  • Select the right space heater for the situation. Check out our Space Heater Guide to identify what type of heater is best for you.
  • Space heaters work best in smaller rooms that are closed off to the rest of your home. An open door will quickly reduce the effectiveness of the heater.
  • If you’re using multiple space heaters for more than a few hours it may be more cost effective to use your central heating, which is the most efficient way to heat your entire house.
  • Since space heaters use a lot of electricity, multiple heaters on the same circuit can trip a circuit breaker.
  • The higher wattage of these units exceeds the capabilities of most extension cords, creating a fire hazard. Plug your space heater directly into an outlet.

The U.S. Department of Energy also provides some good tips on space heater safety and what to look for when making a purchase.

Meanwhile, putting on a sweater or sweatshirt instead of using that space heater could save you a dollar a day or more. For a little entertainment and a few tips, check out our video comparing three different types of space heaters.

Keep Shocks and Fires Out of Your Holiday Plans

The winter holidays are prime time for home fires and electrical shocks, leading to property damage, burns, or worse. Fortunately, you can avoid many potential home mishaps with some care and attention while working your holiday decorating magic in your home.

Many of the basic electrical threats in the home such as overloaded circuits and extension cord safety were covered in our post on home safety. During the holidays we tend to bring out extra extension cords, indoor and outdoor light strands, power strips and timers. While candles are by far the most dangerous holiday decorations, aged electrical equipment also causes danger. The Electrical Fire Safety Foundation (EFSF) has tips on keeping your holidays safe. Here are some key points:

  • Inspect all extension and lighting cords for damage such as frayed cords or exposed wires.
  • Don’t use electrical ornaments or light strings on artificial trees with metallic leaves or branch coverings.
  • Unlike incandescent bulbs, which generate most of their energy in heat, LEDs are cool to the touch—which also indicates greater energy-efficiency.
  • LEDs are made with epoxy lenses, not glass and are much more durable.
  • When hanging lights outdoors, use a wooden or fiberglass ladder.
  • Turn off all indoor and outdoor holiday lighting before leaving the house or going to bed.
  • Never drape anything over a light bulb or lampshade, even if using LEDs.

While it is unlikely that your tree will catch fire, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA.org) notes that electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in 38% of home Christmas tree fires. The results of a tree fire can be devastating, as dramatically shown in their video.

It’s worth the few minutes it takes to check on the condition of your electric decorations and make sure flammable materials are far removed from heat sources such as candles and heaters. We all want to keep the “Happy” in Happy Holidays!

Don’t Get Left in the Dark – Be Ready for Winter Power Outages

Mother Nature has a way of dealing us surprises in winter, and among the aces up her flashlight_blogsleeve are weather-related power outages. Although we aggressively trim tree limbs near power lines and work to maintain reliability throughout the City, outages do occur. Here are some tips on how to be prepared for a power outage and avoid serious inconvenience.

  • Check your emergency preparedness kit for flashlights and fresh batteries
  • Have ice packs or plastic containers of water in your freezer to place in your refrigerator or a cooler to help keep food cold during an extended outage
  • Keep canned food on hand and have a manual can opener available
  • Keep some cash handy to buy ice or other necessities in case stores in an outage area are unable to process credit or electronic transactions
  • Have a battery-operated radio
  • Have a backup charging method for your phone or other mobile device such as an inexpensive vehicle USB adapter, battery power pack or solar power pack
  • Do not run your vehicle in a garage or enclosed space, or close to your home, to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning
  • If you have an electric garage door opener, know where the manual release lever is located and test it before there is an outage
  • Surge protectors on your electronic equipment can guard against damage if a surge occurs when power is restored

Power outages are a fact of life during winter weather and we all should be prepared to safely cope with them. Fortunately, cell phones and other mobile devices that work without household power can give you access to websites and Twitter for information during a power outage or weather emergency.

More information on emergency preparedness and what to do during a power outage is available at www.ready.gov/power-outages and on our website. Updates during a widespread power outage are available by visiting us on Twitter or via our website.

Beware – Downed Power Lines Can Be Deadly!

Downed power lines are very rare, but they can cause serious injury or death. They usually Downed Power Lineoccur during extreme weather or when a vehicle strikes a power pole. If you see a power line down, call 911 or 408.615.5640 immediately to report the problem.

Our friends at Puget Sound Energy in Washington put together a great video about what to do in the event you are in a car and come across downed power lines. Helpful general safety guidelines about downed lines are provided by the Electrical Safety Foundation Institute:

  • You cannot tell whether or not a power line is energized just by looking at it. You should assume that all downed power lines are live.
  • If you see a downed power line, move away from it and anything touching it. The ground around power lines – up to 35 feet away – may be energized.
  • The proper way to move away from the power line is to shuffle away with small steps, keeping your feet together and on the ground at all times. This will minimize the potential for a strong electric shock.
  • If you see someone who is in direct or indirect contact with the downed line, do not touch the person. You could become the next victim. Call 911 for help.
  • Do not attempt to move a downed power line or anything else in contact with it by using an object such as a broom or stick. Even non-conductive materials like wood or cloth can conduct electricity if even slightly wet.
  • Be careful not to touch or step in water near where a downed power line is located.
  • Do not drive over downed power lines.
  • If your car comes in contact with a downed power line while you are inside, stay in the car. Honk your horn to summon help, but direct others to stay away from your car.
  • If you must leave your car because it is on fire, jump out of the vehicle with both feet together and avoid contact with both the car and the ground at the same time. Shuffle away from the car.

Again, check out the video from Puget Sound Energy and please share this information with others. It can keep them safe!

Call 811 Before You Dig!

811Eng_ver_RGBThe last thing anyone wants is a dangerous surprise while making a home improvement. Buried pipes give us convenient delivery of natural gas, water and electricity, but they also pose a serious threat if they are hit during any type of digging. The hazards lurk in front yards as well as backyards, and a mistake may not only cost you repair expenses, fines, and inconvenience – it can cause serious injury or even death.

Calling 811 two business days before you (or your contractor) dig connects you to a free call center that will take your project information and notify local utilities of your intention to break ground. Each utility will come out to your location within two business days and mark all underground facilities with temporary flags or spray paint at no cost.

Hitting a buried high-voltage power line, fiber optic cable, natural gas line or water pipe can be avoided. So call 8-1-1 before you:

  • install a sidewalk, steps or deck
  • dig a hole for a hedge, tree or fence
  • excavate for a pool
  • start any other project such as putting in a mailbox or adding a fountain.

Federal law requires you to call 8-1-1 two business days before you dig, and it just makes sense to make the call and be sure your project goes without any surprises.

Prevent Shocks and Fires at Home

Electrical problems in homes cause over 50,000 fires a year resulting in hundreds of BePowerSafe Hashtaginjuries and deaths. Many of these electrical malfunctions and accidents are preventable, and taking some time to inspect your home’s indoor electrical system is just a smart thing to do. A simple oversight like a frayed cord or unsafe outlet could cause you grief, and the  even a small amount of electricity can be fatal.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) are inexpensive outlets that prevent electric shocks and should be used in your kitchen, bathrooms, unfinished basement, garage, wet bars and near the laundry room tub. Here are some more tips from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about how you can prevent a problem:

  • Always turn off power at the circuit breaker box before working on your electrical system. (Hint: this is a good time to label or verify the labeling of your breakers so you know at a glance what they control.)
  • Replace any electric cords that are frayed, cracked or have exposed wires.
  • Do not place cords under rugs, across doorways, or any place where they can be stepped on. Don’t wrap cords tightly around any object.
  • If children are present, use safety covers on all unused outlets, including wall outlets, power strips and extension cords.
  • Do not use extension cords on a permanent basis, and never use metal such as nails or wire staples to hold a cord in place.
  • All electrical equipment, including kitchen appliances like toasters, should be located away from water and moisture sources.
  • Never overload a circuit.
  • If a light switch or outlet is warm, your lights flicker, you have blown fuses or tripped circuits, or you ever receive a slight shock that’s not from static electricity, call a qualified electrician to determine the problem.

Remember, if you have children in your home, you will need to pay special attention to home electrical safety. There are many more areas that you should check out in your home to be sure it’s electrically safe, and some great sources of more information are: