Squirrels and power lines don't always make a good combo

Power outages often caused by an unlucky squirrel
Jul 12, 2011
Photo by: Vicki Hyatt photo Squirrels are known for their ability to scurry up trees, along fences and even walk across power lines. It becomes deadly when a squirrel unknowingly become a conductor by touching something metal while on a power line.

On a recent Haywood County morning, more than 2,500 homes, farms and businesses went dark when a three-and-a-half hour power outage struck the Bethel area. The culprit was clear, and it wasn’t lightning or a fallen tree. It was a squirrel — really.
Ken Thomas, the marketing and communications manager for the Haywood County Electric Membership Corporation, knows that most of his customers probably shake their heads in disbelief when they hear such a thing, but that doesn’t take away from the truth of the matter. It doesn’t take much for a squirrel, or another member of the animal kingdom, to cause a power outage. In fact, it happens all the time.
“It’s not uncommon to have hundreds of outages a year due to wildlife, not just squirrels,” he said.
The recent blackout is a prime example of why critters and electrical wiring don’t always mix well. Everyone knows a squirrel or bird can sit on an electrical wire without issue, he said, explaining that phenomenon is called “equal potential.” The animals only run into big problems when their bodies happen to touch another conductor, as in anything else metal, while they’re still touching the live wire. At that point, the creature often ceases to be. In certain cases, such as the recent outage, the results can be particularly dramatic and create nothing short of a mini explosion.
“Literally, a ball of fire could be 3 or 4 feet wide,” Thomas said. “Anything within that 3 to 4 feet’s going to get burnt.”
During that recent outage, this meant the doomed squirrel not only met his maker, but also took the power from 2,695 customers along with him. Though crews can usually get electricity back on in 30 minutes or less after such an issue, that morning there was no getting around the big chunk of time needed to replace the fuse bracket and to clean the charring from the squirrel-induced supernova. Thomas estimates that more than 12,000 volts went through the animal — not that it had any clue.
“The squirrel had no idea,” he said. “Trust me, he didn’t feel a thing.”
Though squirrels often seem blameless in this equation, other times it seems as though they are actively seeking their demise. In addition to running up and down power lines, they have a puppy-like penchant for chewing. The can spend their days happily gnawing on the polymer that insulates the electric lines. This not only keeps them stationed on the lines, where they stand a good possibility of being fried, but it also causes an unending barrage of damage, which inevitably has to be repaired. While anything from a snake to a bird can cause electrical troubles, squirrels tend to be one of the most common assaults on electricity in this county — and nation. From Thomas’ understanding, wherever there are squirrels, there are outages caused by them.
For these reasons and more, Waynesville Director of Public Works Fred Baker likes to think of the bushy-tailed rodents as “tree rats.”
“There’s a lot of them, and there’s a lot of miles of power lines, and every once and again, they’ll get scorched,” he said. “And more often than not, it’s fatal.”
While he and others in the electricity business understand this, he also knows that many customers are incredulous when it comes to the idea of squirrel damage. Because of this, his department once began taking pictures of the unlucky animals. Back in the days of instant cameras, he remembers having a stack of macabre photos that was 4 inches tall. Squirrels are, and have always been, “a huge problem,” he said.
They are not, however, something he or any of his colleagues feel they can truly affect. At his office, squirrels fall into the same category as drunk drivers who sideswipe electrical poles.
“We do consider vandals, varmints and animals uncontrollable,” he said.
These unpredictable, unrestrainable factors are a pain, but they are also a big part of why Baker, Thomas and everyone else in the world of electricity has a job. Both men know that despite the measures taken to make power stations and power lines squirrel-proof (including objects called “wildlife protectors,” which are often chewed through), squirrels will always find a way to impact the county’s electrical supply. Likewise, electricity employees will always be there to make sure the animals don’t leave their mark for too long.
While it might seem frustrating, Baker seems to take comfort in the fact that when it comes to the squirrel issue, Waynesville is certainly not alone.
“Everybody pretty much has the same kind of troubles,” he said.