For the uninitiated, that’s often the sound made when a metallic balloon drifts into a power line, transformer or substation. And, unfortunately, it’s usually the beginning of a power outage.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, it’s a sound that usually grows more significantly in February and March compared with the preceding months. It signifies an increase in balloon-related outages caused by more people receiving them as gifts and eventually allowing them to carelessly drift away. And there are consequences beyond power outages, including potential threats to public safety and property damage.
While drastically reducing balloon outages remains elusive, the solution is still cheap and simple.
“People should keep their balloons indoors if possible, but they should always be attached to a weight heavy enough to keep them from floating away, especially outdoors,” said James Mackenzie, SCE principal manager of Corporate Safety Programs. “Our top priority is safety and keeping the lights on. If the public practices good judgment by never releasing balloons outdoors, we will all benefit.”
Balloon weights are required by California law and mass balloon releases are also illegal in many states, including California. Despite those laws, SCE had 656 balloon-related outages last year, down slightly from the 689 in 2013.
And while balloon-caused outages are definitely not confined to February — SCE’s high last year was its 137 in June — they typically start rising in February and March compared with the previous two months. Last year, SCE had 30 and 64 of the outages, respectively in February and March after experiencing 20 and 24, respectively, in December and January.
The March numbers, incurred long after Valentine’s Day, indicate how metallic balloons can retain helium for several weeks, which along with their durability is among the reasons for their popularity.
Perhaps the most serious downside, though, is when the balloon contact is so intense that it causes a power line to sever and dangle or fall to the ground. In addition to prolonging an outage, this is a major safety threat that people should avoid — even if the power lines appear not to be live. People should never touch or approach them and they should call 911 immediately.
Additionally, balloon owners should never try to retrieve a balloon — or any foreign object — tangled in power lines or poles. They should instead call SCE at 800-611-1911. And when disposing of them, balloons should never be released. Instead, puncture them several times or cut the knot with scissors before throwing them in the garbage so they won’t float away.
“Balloons may not seem that significant, but when they’re allowed to drift and land in the electrical infrastructure, they can threaten safety and cause major damage,” said Mackenzie. “They can also disrupt peoples’ everyday activities.”
Those disruptions can notably include inoperable traffic signals, but also extend to shopping, pumping gas or using an ATM, to name just a few.
“It’s safe to say that even one balloon outage in February or any other month is one more than necessary,” said Mackenzie. “People should act responsibly to keep them secured because it only takes one to create a dangerous situation or affect the lives of thousands.”