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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Anatomy of a Power Outage in Santa Clara

Be Prepared for a Power OutageIt’s 1 a.m. on a January eveningand strong winds are blowing through Santa Clara. A palm frond breaks loose and flies into a power line. Lights in nearby homes flicker and then go out. Customers begin reaching out to us to see if they are the only customer without power and when power will be restored. But what’s going on behind the scenes? While every power event is different, here’s a look inside a typical outage.

Operational Center: When the palm frond shorts out the line, a control operator at our operational center sees an alarm on the monitor; a short circuit “fault” has completely shut down a circuit covering multiple neighborhoods within the city. As a safety measure, the automatic response system does not attempt to restore power to the area until it can be inspected for damage and safety, and ultimately re-energized by our personnel.

The control operator immediately alerts managers, customer service, and dispatch. Shortly after the first alarm, a troubleshooter is sent out to begin tracing the problem. In a large outage like this, the customer service team begins posting to social media and they’re called in to start fielding calls from residents. Sometimes residents can provide information that helps pinpoint the exact location of the issue, which is often helpful after dark.

Distribution Substation: Still unaware of the exact cause, our substation electrician heads to the distribution substation nearest to the affected area to determine if the problem stems from the substation itself, or the distribution line that showed an alarm. The electrician identifies that the issue is within the distribution line and alerts the control operator, who directs the troubleshooter to begin inspecting the lines of the affected circuit.

Power Checkpoints: The troubleshooter inspects circuit indicators on checkpoints along power poles and in readily accessible underground vaults located every few blocks, following the flashing warning signals along the circuit. When the troubleshooter finds a checkpoint with normal, non-flashing indicator, it means the problem is between that check point and the previous one inspected. Many times, the troubleshooter will begin isolating the problem area and restore power to residents in cleared zones.

Issue Area: The troubleshooter soon finds the palm frond that has landed below the power lines. Fortunately, the power lines have not been damaged. However, the palm frond has been scorched by 12,000 volts of electricity. The crew informs the operator that all is clear. The electrician at the substation resets the sensors, initiates all safety checks, and enables power to flow back through the circuit.

Nearby Homes: The cause and location of the outage determines the time to restore power to customers, and it is important for our staff to conduct safety inspections before returning power to affected circuits. If the problem section of the line can be isolated, many customers can have power restored just minutes after the problem is identified.

Our team works hard to ensure minimal power disruption, but power restoration times vary and some occurrences are beyond our control. When an unexpected power outage like this occurs, we want you to be ready. To prepare your home for when the lights do go out, check out our power outage preparation tips.

Going Pole to Pole

Power line repairHow often do you think about the utility poles in your neighborhood? You may not think about this utility infrastructure when you make that overdue phone call to Mom, send a last-minute work email, or host Friday night movie night, but it’s all made possible by the utility lines running through Santa Clara and the poles that connect them.

As modern communications evolve, more equipment and more cables are added to poles: Cables for power and telephones are joined by lines for cable television and internet services and more wires become necessary to serve more subscribers. This additional weight can cause pole loads to exceed safe levels. Every utility pole has a defined amount of weight and stress that it can handle from attached equipment and weather conditions, as determined by the California Public Utilities Commission. When the pole weights exceed these safety levels, unsafe conditions such as power outages and fires can occur.

Today, utility poles across California are approaching this overloaded status more and more frequently. For example, one region in southern California has seen up to 22 percent of its utility poles reach overloaded status. To keep our community connected and safe, our team is taking comprehensive measures to ensure our community’s utility poles are up-to-date. We’re currently undertaking a multiyear pole inspection program to investigate 10,000 poles and crossarms in Santa Clara for symptoms of overloading and decay.

This information will be stored in a database, which will provide us with an accurate view of every pole in the field, help us create new pole designs, and track overloaded poles. Our new database will also work with pole loading software to analyze features such as pole strength, wire and equipment attachments, environmental factors, and any interactions of these elements that influence a pole’s structural integrity.

With this system, we’ll be able to see when poles need to be updated or replaced before a problem occurs. For example, this spring our crews are set to replace over 45 poles and numerous crossarms with new structures. All crossarms are made with newer composite materials that are stronger and more resilient to wind and other weather than traditional wood materials.

Our team is always on the lookout for new technologies that can improve our services and keep our customers connected. While at first glance utility poles may not seem like an obvious source of technological progress, bringing you more durable infrastructure allows us to provide the reliable service you expect.

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.

“Height” of a career can have two very different meanings!

Phil Waterhouse wife Outlet June 2017Peering down from 90-feet up on a steel tower can be dizzying enough for most people. But staring down that tower and then into another 1,200-foot drop into a canyon excavated for a new hydroelectric dam can be memorable, if not downright scary.

That’s how our Senior Electric Meter Technician Phil Waterhouse described the “height” of a long career in the electric utility industry. At the time, about 30 years ago, he was placing microwave repeaters for the Pathfinder Dam in Wyoming.

“I remember looking around at the horizon, and the dam was the only sign of civilization that I could see,” he said.

Phil enjoyed being away from civilization as a youngster in Indiana, where he grew up next to an open space that was ripe for adventure. When he wasn’t “exploring the wilds of Indiana” as he described it, he tinkered with things, a pastime he still enjoys.

“Some people take apart clocks. I take apart computers and put them back together again. Why buy something fancy when I can cobble something together that does the job?”

As an adult he has extended his hobbies to scuba diving.

“During the 1990s I learned scuba under the YMCA program, earning Basic Diver, Advanced, Night, Cave, Wreck, Ice, Lifesaving and Advanced Lifesaving certificates.”

Fast forward to today, where Phil is marking his 15th year with us. He and his team are currently coordinating the distribution of more than 54,000 advanced meters to our business and residential customers in the City of Santa Clara, where he started as a lineman.

“Eventually we’re going to see some pretty exciting things for our customers with the new technology,” Phil said. “One day, a mobile app will show a customer the increase in their power consumption when they turn on a machine.”

Phil has witnessed the transition of the utility business as an industry professional for four decades.

“I have 41 years as an A-member Journeyman Lineman in the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers),” he said. “I’ve traveled the country and served as foreman on jobs that included most aspects of the electric utility industry, including a couple of general foreman stints on 69-kilovolt (69,000 volts) projects.”

Love of being under water certainly is a contrast to working high in the air over a gaping canyon. In either extreme, it seems Phil has been able to take a deep breath and enjoy his surroundings, wherever he is.

SVP Recognized for Superior Leadership

Over 120 years ago, our City established its municipal electric utility in order to provide DSC_0983.JPGstreet lighting in the growing city. Today, our commitment to Santa Clara includes not only affordable and reliable power, but also numerous innovative programs, an emphasis on community engagement and participation in the local and regional battle against climate change.

These attributes earned us an award from the Northwest Public Power Association (NWPPA). The Paul J. Raver Award, given for demonstrating superior leadership in the betterment of cities, states or regions, was presented to us on May 11, 2017 at the NWPPA Annual Meeting in Sunriver, OR.

This prestigious honor belongs to every one of our SVP employees. From our power resources and control room staff, to our line workers and engineers, and to our customer service representatives and community program managers, there is not one person here who did not contribute to winning this award.

According to NWPPA’s news release, “Silicon Valley Power has been committed to providing the community with highly reliable power at low rates and has worked hard to diversify its resources and continually invest in renewable energy to further reduce its carbon footprint.”

The association further cited SVP’s key role in forming the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) in 1968, which organized similar municipal electric utilities in the state to allow them to buy electricity on the wholesale market. NCPA members also jointly developed cost-effective power generation resources for its members, resulting in lower rates than other utilities.

SVP still has the lowest system average rates in California among utilities with more than 5,000 customers, while remaining committed to doing so with a power mix that exceeds California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

SVP has had a lifetime of serving our community. Our policies, philosophy and programs are all geared to provide value to Santa Clara. And 120 years later, we still take care of the street lights.

Rate Increase Proposed by SVP; Electricity Rates to Remain Lowest in State

The necessity for system improvements, steadily rising costs to bring power to Santa Clara, and the need to replenish emergency reserves depleted by the drought are among the main reasons why we are proposing rate increases of 3 percent in 2017 and 2018. Our rates will still remain among the lowest in the state. Neighboring utilities are raising prices 11 percent or more next year.

Aging Equipment

Maintenance and upgrade projects include replacing 30-40 year old power poles, cross arms and neighborhood transformers as well as improving power lines to meet growing demand.

Our Director of the Electric Utility, John Roukema explains it this way. “Just like maintaining your car to make sure it doesn’t break down on the freeway, we have to replace aging and outdated equipment to prevent unexpected outages. Equipment failure during a heat wave, while working on a project you haven’t saved on your computer, or while getting the kids ready for school can be a real hardship for our customers.”

Costs Climb

The cost of bringing power into Santa Clara is also a factor in the proposed rate increase, as transmission costs have risen nearly 200 percent in the past few years. While a portion of the electricity used in Santa Clara comes from local SVP generating sources, most power comes from other regions providing energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal or other resources. Also, the cost to deliver natural gas to our power plants doubled this past summer as a part of PG&E’s pipeline safety program.

Electricity usage in the City increased nearly 8 percent last year, requiring an increased use of state-wide transmission services. On the bright side, this increase in sales allowed us to cover some of these rising costs and limit the rate increase to only 3 percent.

Drought Cost Offset by Reserves

Inexpensive hydroelectric power became scarce during the four-year drought, we were able to maintain low rates by dipping into our emergency reserves to offset the higher costs of more expensive energy. We must replenish our reserves so that we can be prepared for the next time there is a drop in low-cost power resources or in case wholesale prices suddenly rise. The reserves give us the stability to weather the storm and keep rates reasonable for our customers when power supplies go awry. The reserves also bolster our credit rating and reduce our cost to finance large projects.

Limit Inconvenience

We will do everything we can to limit inconvenience for our neighborhoods while our maintenance and upgrade program continues the next few years. In some cases there will be scheduled power interruptions and we will notify customers in advance when these are to occur. A planned outage certainly beats the pain of a sudden wide-spread outage caused by ignoring preventative maintenance.

We ask customers to be patient and understand that the system work and the rate increase, first and foremost, support reliable and reasonably priced power for our community.

Fiber Optics is the 100-Mile Communications Backbone of Santa Clara

Just as most of us don’t think twice about where power comes from when we flip a switch youdoodle-2016-10-31t11-23-51z_resizedand the light comes on, rarely do we consider how all that information arrives on our computer screen when we search the Internet. But somewhere in that millisecond journey from a database to your screen, the information passed through hundreds if not thousands of miles of fiber optic cable.

Fiber is the backbone of the Internet as well as critical for numerous companies in our city that rely on high-speed and reliable communications conduits. We entered into the fiber business almost by accident. Many years ago, we wanted the fastest, most reliable and best modern method for sending and receiving data to and from our electric substations, control room and throughout our local grid system.

The answer was a fiber optics network that helped us achieve higher power reliability. In 1995, our leaders came up with the idea of laying down far more fiber capacity than we needed immediately, figuring that future demand from customers as well as our utility would be well served by that extra capacity. That’s how we now have over 100 miles of fiber optic cable in our city, and that number continues to grow.

Our business customers jumped on the opportunity to use an already-established fiber infrastructure to enhance their communications abilities and make those capabilities available to their own customers. The SVP Fiber Enterprise was born 16 years ago and continues to provide data centers and corporations with a most modern, reliable and scalable dark fiber network today. When fiber optic cable is first built and made available for use, it’s called dark fiber. Once electronic equipment is added to each end, the fiber lights up and transmits data via virtually error-free single mode fiber optic cable capable of up to 2 terabits of data per second. That’s 100,000 times faster than today’s consumer speeds at home.

We continually monitor its operation, and a professional fiber team offers technical expertise, engineering design, construction, splicing, and upgrade assistance, as well as on-going tech support and customer service. Santa Clara’s dark fiber system plant has a stellar reputation for reliability and customer service.

That makes sense. After all, those are a couple of the key attributes we pride ourselves on here.

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.

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.