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Question DetailsAsked on 5/12/2011

Power line interruptions

I live in a semi-rural area served by an electric cooperative. Power interruptions are all too frequent. Tonight's power surge was supposedly caused by a child's balloon that floated into a power line and tripped a breaker at the substation. Does this sound plausible?

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1 Answer


Balloons (especially metallic ones) and kites are common causes of power outages, as are birds hopping around on insulators and arcing out - we get about one or two outages a year in our area from magpies, jays, ravens, eagles shorting out a line.

One other factor working against you probably, is in rural areas the lines are a lot lighter capacity, so the breakers trip off more readily than in dense urban areas. Also, coops and small power companies tend to put more emphasis on reducing damage to their system in the event of a short, so they are generally more conservative in selecting breaker sizing. This is particularly true in areas where tree contact is common and especially in fire hazard areas, so they do not have lines burn through or start fires that they then get blamed for.

In some areas with heavy vegetation and few customers on a line, especially if passing through a wildlife preserve or park or such, they will sometimes choose for economic reasons or not be allowed (or meet too much resistance from locals) to clear along the right of way the 100-200 feet it takes to prevent tree issues, so instead of breakers they put in ground fault interrupters - like a giant GFCI. These trip out at very low current flow between circuit lines, so even a balloon or kite string which melts or burns away almost instantly and would not trip a breaker will take the line off-line, to prevent damage to the wires. Sometimes they use the more expensive ones that remake the contact 3 times to see if the short is still there before staying off, others use one-time trip interrupters that trip off at the first short and have to be manually reset by a lineman. This is likely the case in your area, so you might commonly get a half dozen or dozen interruptions like that a year in a wooded region, generally from 5-60 minutes (or many hours in truly remote areas) long depending on how long it takes for a lineman to get to the point of interruption, deterine the cause and clear it, and reset the breaker/interrupter.

Answered 5 years ago by LCD

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