Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How Does This Work?

Location: Troubleshooter ride-a-long, West Akron Line Shop

You’d think there has to be an easier way to do this work than to go 30 feet up a ladder in the rain or snow or wind and work on live wires carrying voltage. But there’s not. The work can be hazardous and requires hour after hour of concentrated focus on safety, as well as physical strength and stamina, to execute successfully. This is particularly true during storm restoration work, when 16-hour shifts are the norm and the work can last for weeks.

Of course, I’m absolutely not qualified to be doing the work of a lineman. Technically, I’ll be an observer. I am not going to be up in a bucket truck, dealing with live or depowered wires. In fact, I can’t even direct traffic.

My adventures in the field start with a ride-a-long with what we call a troubleshooter. Troubleshooters respond to everyday reports of damage or outages, investigate the scene and, if possible, make the needed repairs. If necessary, a troubleshooter can call in other crews to assist. Often, local fire or police are already on-scene if there’s a wire down, particularly if it’s across a roadway.

Back to Basics

As we drive toward our first trouble spot, I recall the basics of my safety briefing:

  • Always wear all of your personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Don’t touch anything on-site, not even the bucket truck
  • When you arrive, you cannot know what has happened, what will happen or what is waiting for you just around the block, so be aware in all directions at all times – up, down, front, back, side to side.

Finding The Trouble Spot

The first surprise: you have to find the trouble spot by looking for the actual problem up on a pole. Not only are wires difficult to trace visually against a wooded background, but the troubleshooter has to know what the equipment should look like when it’s working and when it’s not.

To find the trouble spot, we drive slowly and do a visual inspection, which we cut short when we see a township fire vehicle waiting for our arrival.

I notice it takes a little bit of extra effort just to extract myself from the truck because office boy isn’t used to wearing steel-toed protective work boots under dielectric anti-conductive boots, which are somewhat heavier than his usual dress shoes.

Once out of the truck, I can hear a sparking noise. We find one wire of a three-wire residential service line on the ground, and the other two lines touching, sparking and spitting smoke The troubleshooter quickly set up his bucket truck, went up the pole and snipped the live wires. The sparking and smoking stopped. Then he took his ladder to the house and checked for stray voltage. “Sometimes, if a house has a generator and it’s set up improperly, it can feed power back into the lines.”

No generator in use. The job is safe. Within the hour, the home is restored to service and we’re off to our next call – a “no lights” call several miles away.

Another visual inspection reveals a blown fuse at the pole serving the area up the road. Although it is pointed out to me, I am unable to see it or determine how the troubleshooter knows that’s the spot, but a quick drive up the road and we find an distribution line on the ground, obviously broken when a dead tree fell against it. The fire department had marked the area off with traffic cones. Quickly, our plan of attack was determined. First, cut the dead tree out of the way. Second, find both ends of the line on the ground and use a winch to pull them back together, then splice them together. Third, go back down the road and replace the fuse, restoring service.

Lessons Learned

The lessons included that common sense in the field allows us to best serve customers sometimes. I also learned that knowing how the bits and pieces of our electric grid work – what they look like, what they do, how and why they fail – is priceless knowledge for the folks who restore service.

Up next: storm restoration. I’m heading to Maryland to see up close how this process works as crews restore service following some bad winter weather.