That’s exactly what happened on Valentine’s Day two years ago when a Mylar balloon struck Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Fontana substation, leaving 15,099 customers without power for about an hour that night.
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And balloon-caused outages are rising for the utility. SCE experienced 689 balloon-related outages last year — an 18-percent jump over the 583 such outages in 2012. And the 2012 numbers had been the highest since 2007.
“We can’t stop rainstorms,” said Larry Pena, manager of Corporate Safety Policy and Regulations at SCE. “But people can control their Mylar balloons.”
When Mylar balloons are allowed to drift away, they can land on power lines and in substations, causing electrical equipment to short-circuit or even sometimes bringing down power lines. And it takes only one Mylar balloon to disrupt the lives of thousands of customers.
The first and best solution is to keep the balloons indoors. But if they must be taken outdoors, they should be secured to a heavy weight to keep them from floating away, as required by state law. Never remove the weight. Mass balloon releases also are illegal in several states, including California.
“Balloons may not seem like a big deal, but when they drift into power lines, transformers and substations, they can cause major damage,” said Pena. “Additionally, the unexpected loss of electrical service can potentially affect thousands of people driving, using elevators and performing routine tasks such as shopping and refueling automobiles, to name a few.”
Balloon-related outages are certainly not confined to Valentine’s Day, but they typically increase around February, with SCE experiencing 59 and 74, respectively, in February and March last year after 34 such outages in January. The March numbers are indicative of how Mylar balloons can hold helium inside for several weeks — which, along with their durability, is one of the main reasons for their popularity.
No one should ever try to retrieve a balloon — or any foreign object — caught in power lines or poles. Instead, call SCE at 800-611-1911 and report the problem. Also, never attach latex or metallic streamers to balloons because they too are excellent conductors of electricity.
And, if the balloons ever lead to dangling or downed power lines — even if they appear not to be live — do not touch or approach them and call 911 immediately.
Finally, balloons should never be released when you’re finished with them. Instead, you should puncture them several times or cut the knot with scissors and throw them in the garbage to make sure they don’t float away if the garbage container is overturned.
“Our job is to keep the lights on and we’ll do a better job of that if we can keep Mylar balloons from contacting our lines,” said Pena. “We ask that the public show good judgment and never release a Mylar balloon outside because the balloon you release could create an outage, perhaps even in your own neighborhood.”