Kyle Finley, Live Line Demo
Winter weather creates hidden dangers
Downed power lines, emergency generators and icy roads can be deadly
In our earliest recollections as children, we are told to stay away from electric cords and plug-ins. Then we get a little older and venture outside and are warned to stay away from power lines outside the house. We are also called inside during lightning storms and told not to stand beneath trees. We generally comply, but don’t necessarily understand the complexity of the conductivity we are avoiding. So, let’s break down the process a bit.
Is water a conductor or an insulator? If you think it’s such a great conductor, understand this. When it rains, and it turns to ice on all of the lines and transformers, why then does the electrical system not burn up and fall down because of the conductivity of water?
Here’s the reason.
Pure H20 is technically an insulator and when God gives us the rain, for the most part it’s pretty clean water.
When it rains and water falls on the ground, however, it sucks in minerals and chemicals like a sponge or magnet. That’s what makes most of our water conductive. In fact, the difference in well water from one home to another may vary in its conductivity, purely on the basis of iron content. One home has a lot, the other has very little.
In winter, snowy conditions add another layer of complexity to the equation.
Now, what color is snow? It’s white. Whenever there is snow or ice on the ground and one of our co-op lines falls down, that line has even a higher chance of being energized on the ground than normal. Why? Because it’s insulated by the snow or the ice from making contact with the ground. It may not be arcing, it may however, be very much alive and difficult to detect in the snow.
You can’t hear it. You can’t smell it. You can’t see it. You never know if a line is energized until it’s too late. So the best thing to do is stay clear of it.
Having been a lineman, I know the best thing for the homeowner to do following an ice storm where power is affected, is to wait inside until the electric co-op restores power.
Don’t assume that because you don’t have power that the lines are not energized. Your individual service could be down or it could be a three-phase line in front of your home.
While waiting, be very careful about using generators during outages. A generator must be installed properly with the proper transfer switch.
Besides caring for the wellbeing of others, think about this. If you kill somebody from generator backfeed, do you have insurance? Many insurance policies say you must be complying with codes in order to be covered. A wrongly wired, deadly generator would be in violation of the national electric code.
What about plugging a heater or some lights into the generator to help you get through the down time? As long as you don’t tie the main from your house into your own generator, you’re okay. And remember fueling and ventilation safety when using a generator. Carbon monoxide from it will kill you.
To help prevent major and minor outages your co-op must have a good tree-trimming program and maintain thousands of miles of right of way. In addition to preventing outages tree-trimming also has a safety aspect.
Let me explain. If you’ll notice, a tree that’s touched a power line will have burn marks. That means there is current flowing into the tree and into the ground. If you are touching the tree that is bumping the line could you be electrocuted? Absolutely.
Another thing to keep in mind in winter: Roads are slippery. Should you slide off the road in your vehicle and strike a pole, the best thing to do is wait for professional assistance to arrive. Unless your car is on fire, stay put and warn passersby to stay away. Downed lines may be present.
If you must exit the car due to fire, jump away from the vehicle, landing on both feet and bunny hop to safety to prevent a pathway of current from passing through your body. Don’t shuffle. Don’t separate your feet. If at all possible, just stay put. Call for help.
For more information contact your local electric co-op, or go to www.safeelectricity.org.
Kyle Finley, who worked for Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, now farms and provides safety demonstrations to schools, companies and emergency response employees across the state. Live Line Demo, 217-474-7916, KFinley@livelinedemo.com, or go to www.livelinedemo.com.