Monday, July 7, 2003

Storms keeping linemen busy

It's triage when restoring power

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"Watch yer heads!" Gary Robbins yells Sunday morning from the cherry picker to two fellow Cinergy linemen some 40 feet below.

Above a street near Fay Apartments, Robbins has just unbolted a blown transformer. The transformer likely was struck by lightning during the Friday night storm that ravaged the Cincinnati area and caused power outages for about 155,000 Cinergy customers.

Shards of porcelain lie on the ground, remnants of the foot-long lightning arrester that had protected the energy-conducting transformer.

Now the ruined transformer is hanging by a hook on the cherry picker. The workers stick it into a metal can, then hoist a shiny new one back up the pole. Robbins fastens the transformer to the utility pole, and the men are onto their next job in the July heat.

"This is pretty rare for us to work two 16-hour days in a row," says lineman Keith Howell of Edgewood. "Most of ours have been fallen trees shorting out the lines."

But that's the life of Cinergy workers in the days following a destructive storm.

By Sunday afternoon, Cinergy had restored power to all but 1,200 households. Then yet another severe thunderstorm - again accompanied by lightning and high winds - rolled across the Tristate about 6 p.m., putting 10,000 more customers in the dark.

The new outages, caused by falling trees and lightning strikes, were largely in western and central Hamilton County and in Fairfield, Cinergy spokesman Steve Brash said. Power to most of those customers would be restored overnight, he said, along with the last of the Friday night outages.

Sunday night's lightning apparently sparked fires at least four homes, in Evendale, North College Hill, Milford and Forest Park.

The first three received minor roof damage, but the Forest Park home in the 11000 block of Fagler Lane had flames and heavy smoke. A damage estimate was not available Sunday night; no one was injured.

Also Sunday night, a tree fell on a house in the 1800 block of Catalpa Avenue in North College Hill, trapping a resident inside for a while, emergency workers said.

Restoring power after a large storm starts out fast for the energy company, then peters out as each repair returns power to a smaller and smaller number of customers.

It's the electricians' version of triage.

If you're in an area with an enormous power outage that can be linked to one point, you're in luck - the lineman will repair your outage first.

If you're one of the unlucky ones with an outage that affects only your home, then you better get busy waiting, because it'll be a while before they reach you.

First to be repaired are the high-voltage lines that bring power from the six power plants Cinergy operates in Greater Cincinnati.

"Our restoration plan has to start with the high-voltage transmission system," Brash said. "When we restore those lines, we restore power to a large number of people at one time."

Repairing one high-voltage line between Harrison and Fairfield Sunday morning brought back power to 7,700 homes at once, Brash said.

Next in line are distribution systems - power substations full of transformers where dozens of distribution feeders send power to anywhere between 400 and 1,200 customers.

Distribution feeders send power to neighborhood lines, which are next in line to be repaired.

Last come the individual taps to neighborhood lines. Those are the lowest on the totem pole, serving individual or few homes.

"Those jobs can be very simple - replacing a fuse - to very complex - replacing a whole transformer," Brash said.

At the end of a long day that started at 10 p.m. Saturday and was about to end at 2 p.m. Sunday, linemen Robbins and Howell were ready for some sleep.

They were called at 10 p.m. Friday, worked 16 hours, slept eight, then were back to work for another 16-hour shift.

At night, they go in and out of people's yards, brandishing flashlights and looking for sources of power outages.

"You kind of go through energy spurts throughout the night," Howell said. "Then the sun comes up and gives you a little energy burst."


Enquirer reporter William A. Weathers contributed. E-mail

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