How a failed electrical conductor causes a downed power line

Responding to a concerned reader, electrocution lawyer cites study that 58% of equipment-failure “wire down” outages are caused by a failed electrical conductor

Study shows 58% of equipment-failure “wire down” outages are caused by a failed electrical conductor

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a safety-conscious reader and answer his question about the role that a faulty electrical conductor can play in causing downed power lines which, when they’re not properly de-energized and/or cordoned off, result in electrocution or electrical shock injuries to innocent people.

What makes me proudest about being an electrocution lawyer is the help I’ve been able to give to people and families whose lives have been devastated by electrocution.

But another and very satisfying aspect of my own law practice is the opportunities I have to talk with concerned people. The reason behind writing this law blog on electrocution is to hopefully prevent future tragedy, and answering questions from concerned people and offering thoughts from 3 decades of electrocution lawsuits on strategies for protecting themselves and the rest of the public is a way for me to give back.

As I’ve said before:

Our mission is to positively affect electric utility safety practices and procedures, for the benefit and protection of the public. It is concerned citizens like you who help us achieve our objective, one mind at a time.

I’m sharing the question that a concerned citizen recently posed to me, followed by my own answer and comments.

I hope you find it interesting and helpful in keeping your family, yourself and your community safe.

The question was:

“I am attempting to file a formal complaint to the California Public Utility Commission regarding downed lines arcing to earth in front of my residence. The only existing so-called circuit protection are burned out fuses that do not cut the current in a downed line situation. Am I wasting my time?”

Here’s my answer and comments:

  • “We encourage you to formally complain to the California Public Utility Commission, but circuit protection should not be your focus. In approximately 20 percent of downed wire situations, the conductor will remain energized, due to the presence of a high impedance fault. Reclosers, sectionalizers, and other protective devices may react to low impedance faults, but they cannot detect high impedance faults. The technology is not yet sufficiently developed to solve that troublesome challenge.”
  • “But I suggest you address why the powerlines are falling. PG&E has published a wire down study [see below for link], and determined that approximately a third [34%] of those incidents [“Wire Down outages”] were caused by failed splices (connectors) or conductors. Many wire down events can be prevented by good inspection and maintenance practices, including infrared thermography of splices and connectors.”
  • Although excessive heat can cause splices to fail, the cause of the heat is not “power surges,” but rather the “cause is electrical resistance as a result of unworkmanlike installation (e.g., poor crimping) and/or corrosion/contamination. Also, in the absence of splice geolocation and mapping, and without tracking asset lifecycle and service life expectancy, no data on the age and condition of splices is routinely kept. Utilities tend to use splices until they fail, then splice them back into service again.”
  • “Since you are in the PG&E system, I suggest you GOOGLE search a 30-page presentation entitled “Wires Down Improvement Program at Pacific Gas and Electric,” presented at the Western Protective Relay Conference 2015. Figure #7 documents that of their studied wire down incidents, 34% were caused by equipment failure, 25% of which resulted from failed splices (connectors), and 58% resulted from failed conductors (See Figure#16). PG&E did use splice counts, geolocation and mapping of splices, and splice condition assessment through infrared inspection, in their study and presentation. There is an abundance of information contained therein, that should address many of your concerns as expressed in our e-mail exchange.”
  • “There is an engineering asset lifecycle principle known as the ‘bathtub curve.’ If you plot on the ‘Y axis’ (vertical axis) of a graph the ‘failure rate’ of a given asset (e.g. splice), and on the ‘X axis’ (horizontal axis) the time in intervals of years, there are early failures during break-in, from defective products or system design deficiencies. Then once the gremlins of new equipment are eliminated, a long and stable period of low failures ensues, which is replaced by a rapidly rising trajectory of increased failure rates in the out years, due to age-related deterioration and asset wear-out. Utilities tend to ignore preventive maintenance and replacement of aging infrastructure, and often show callous disregard for asset lifecycle tracking and service life expectancy. In so doing, they willfully choose to play Russian Roulette with human life, gambling that no one will be around when failure occurs, and calculating that they’ll use it until it fails, then slap it together again. When people are in the vicinity of such failures, and lives are lost or shattered, lawyers like me get called to hold the utilities accountable. Even then, they defend, delay, deny, and deflect, spending fortunes on slick legal defense teams in an effort to avoid responsibility.”
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