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SAN ANTONIO – You would never go near a downed power line or exposed wiring because of the electrocution danger. But the News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooters have uncovered potentially deadly electrical hazards in places you might never expect — On the streets around San Antonio.
It’s called stray voltage; and around the country people have been killed by it. A frayed wire or decayed insulation causes an object to become energized.
Jodie Lane grew up in San Antonio. She moved to New York City to study and in January 2004 she was killed by stray voltage. While walking her dog, the 30-year-old stepped on a metal grate that had been energized by a faulty, underground wire.
After Lane’s death, New York City began testing for stray voltage once a month. We wanted to know if similar dangers exist here in San Antonio. So the News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooters arranged for the company that does the testing in New York, and other big cities, to do a quick sweep of our downtown.
Power Survey Company has a special truck that is equipped to detect dangerous levels of stray voltage.
“When we find a strong electrical field in the area we know there might be something energized,” David Kalokitis, Chief Engineer for Power Survey Company, explained.
Kalokitis says stray voltage is more common than most people might think. Damaged or worn electrical equipment buried underground often makes contact with objects on the surface.
“Things like sidewalks, manhole covers, street lamps, we’ll find mail boxes that have been energized,” Kalokitis told us. “Bus shelters, payphones, any type of street furniture that is mounted to the ground can effectively become energized and that becomes a shock hazard. It can be deadly.”
The team was only driving around for about five minutes when the sensors on their truck detected stray voltage. The spot they stopped to check out was Main Plaza, right next to San Fernando Cathedral.
Turns out, the 116 volts were coursing through the outside of the light pole. When touched with a metal clamp, sparks were sent flying. And when Kalokitis touched a light bulb on the pole, it powered it up with no problem.
“[If] you have an energized structure like this, it energizes the ground around it. [If] somebody comes along with their dog, their dog walks into this patch of ground, the dog could be electrocuted quite easily.” Kalokitis said. “That’s the same voltage that’s running the lights in your house. I touch it to anything exposed here, it lights right up.
New 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila spoke with a group of tourists passing by the electrified light pole.
“I don’t have a lot of strength and when we do a lot of walking, I often sit down or lean against something,” tourist Duane Schmidt shared with us. “That might have been something I leaned against.”
Avila and the Power Survey Company crew put cones and caution tape around the lamp pole to protect passersby and moved on.
A short distance away, another stray voltage reading alerted them to a light pole in front of the Riverwalk Plaza Hotel. Their equipment said more than 99 volts were coming through the light pole. A few feet away we checked a drainage grate and a metal plate bordering the sidewalk. Both gave off 60 volts of electricity. That’s about the same amount of voltage that killed Jodie Lane.
Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila called CPS Energy about what was uncovered. The next morning they sent out a crew to check things out.
“What they discovered was some frayed wiring on this particular pole,” Lisa Lewis with CPS noted.
“How dangerous is that,” Avila asked.
“It was definitely something to be concerned about. So, we appreciated the call,” Lewis answered.
CPS Energy says its crews sweep the city twice a year for stray voltage.
Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila questioned Lewis about the accuracy of their sweeps, “How is it they could have missed this?”
“I’m not completely certain,” Lewis told him. “But it is something that could have happened in the interim between checks.”
Avila followed up, “The fact we found these situations so quickly and easily, how big a problem is this citywide?”
“To our knowledge, it is not a major problem citywide,” Lewis said.
But the experts we worked with say the hand held sensors CPS Energy uses in its sweeps aren’t sensitive enough to detect stray voltage. So many hazards are likely being overlooked.
As a matter of fact, the first time CPS Energy’s crew went to check out what we found in front of the Riverwalk Plaza Hotel, they couldn’t find any stray voltage with their equipment. Only after the News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooters urged them to go back out a second time, did they find and repair some faulty wiring.
CPS Energy insists its equipment can detect stray voltage around the city. But as a result of our story, it plans to do those every 3 months.
If you have a stray voltage complaint or concern – call CPS Energy’s help line at 353-HELP (4351).
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