Steamboat Springs Three small animals could cost Yampa Valley Electric Association more than $1 million.
YVEA spokesman Jim Chappell said a bird, possibly a magpie, caused a Wednesday morning power outage that left about 6,400 customers without power for about 45 minutes. It's the third time in five weeks that an animal has caused a local power outage - and the damages to YVEA equipment are piling up.
"This is the most extensive damage to a transformer and regulator I've ever seen, and I've been in the business for 37 years," Chappell said of the trio of outages. He has worked in Steamboat Springs for 19 years.
A few minutes after 8 a.m. Wednesday, a bird landed on a bushing - a porcelain insulator that sits on top of the machinery - and had a wingspan long enough to touch two charged pieces of equipment, causing the power outage.
Chappell said damages are estimated at about $500. The total cost of the damage from the three outages caused by small animals is yet to be determined but is estimated at more than $1 million, Chappell said. He said last month that insurance will cover the bulk of the repairs and that customers will not see a change in rates.
"We've gone five years with no problems, then three right in a row," Bob Armstrong, line superintendent for Yampa Valley Electric Association, said Wednesday at the Mount Werner substation on Pine Grove Road.
On May 25, a wayward animal thought to be a raccoon climbed up to live wires at the substation and onto a piece of equipment with 12,000 volts running through it. The animal caused two mineral-oil fires that lit up the night sky in Steamboat Springs and knocked out power for up to 15,000 customers for about an hour on a Sunday night.
A raccoon also caused a small outage May 13, creating a fire in another transformer.
Neither Armstrong nor Chappell could explain the increase in animals getting into equipment at that particular substation.
Can't cover it all
Chappell said there isn't much that can be done to prevent animals from getting into substations, short of enclosing the entire area, which is "difficult to do and extremely cost-prohibitive." He doesn't know of any place in the state where it's been done.
Jim Thate, director of safety training and loss control for the Colorado Rural Electric Association, said it's difficult to enclose a substation because only certain types of materials can be used - such as plastic, rubber and glass - because of electricity.
"Then, (the cover) would have to be ventilated because of the amount of heat that is generated by the equipment," Thate said, "and then there would still be openings around the wires," so the substation never could really be animal-proof, he added.
After the May 25 incident, YVEA ordered animal guards that insulate power lines and equipment for the Mount Werner substation. Armstrong said "they should be here any day now." He estimated the animal guards will cover about 80 percent of the live components in the substation but said, "there is just no way to cover everything."
The National Electric Safety Codes mandate that a 6-foot fence with barbed wire surround the substation, mostly to prevent people from getting in, Thate said. The Mount Werner substation has the required fence.
"Raccoons are tough though because they've got little, opposable thumbs," which make it easy for them to get over the fence, Thate said. Birds also are a problem because they make nests in the equipment, he added.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife does not track the number of power outages caused by small animals in Colorado, because DOW officials are not called to respond to such incidents.
Chappell said despite the damage, YVEA will not have a problem supplying customers with power. If this had happened in the winter, it would be a different story, he said, because that is when customers use more electricity.
Armstrong estimated all existing damage caused by small animals will be repaired by September.
"The old rule of thumb says bad things come in threes, so hopefully this is it," he said about the incidents.