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City gets jolt in stray power report on TV.

Byline: Clive McFarlane

COLUMN: CLIVE MCFARLANE

According to Worcester officials, no residents, pets or other animals have been reported zapped by stray voltage in the city, at least not since the inception of the city's customer service center in 2003.

But that doesn't mean the potential of electrocution from stray voltage isn't present in the city, a fact made clear by the recent findings of a company in the business of identifying stray voltage.

The company, Power Survey, working under a contract with WBZ-TV4, reportedly found stray voltage at nine different areas in the city recently.

But a company official yesterday could only account for eight specific sites.

National Grid, according to city officials, found stray voltage at only five of the nine reported sites. Electricity was immediately shut off at these five sites, and three of the five have subsequently been repaired.

But while city officials seem to take the issue seriously, they suggested that the company and WBZ-TV4 were less interested in the safety of Worcester residents and more in sensationalizing the findings and in embarrassing the local utility "so that they can sell an expensive piece of detection equipment."

But instead of questioning the motives of the media and this company, the city should be grateful for the heads up on a potentially dangerous issue, one that has caused the death of people and pets and other animals around the country.

Thomas Catanese, president of Power Survey, noted that stray voltage most often occurs in cities with underground electrical grids. As these grids decay over time, malfunctions can occur, leading to metal structures such as street lights or manhole covers becoming electrified.

Individuals or animals coming in contact with structures, or hotspots, could absorb a lethal charge of electricity.

"It is a major problem, because many of these (hotspots) are in the public right of way, and they usually will appear to be normal. There will be nothing visually to suggest that they are holding an electrical charge," Mr. Catanese said.

He said his company was formed in 2004 following a number of contact voltage-related tragedies in New York City and other communities.

Working with WBZ-TV4 and other television stations around the country is an attempt to "shine a light on the issue."

"The suggestion that we are looking to sell equipment is preposterous," he said, noting he generally works with large utility companies.

Mr. Catanese also questions the city's claim that National Grid was only able to detect stray voltage in five of the areas identified by Power Survey.

The company, he said, found stray voltage at the following locations: 120 volts at Prospect and Normal streets; 95 volts at Eastern Avenue and Elliot Street; 100 volts at Franklin and Suffolk streets; two poles each over 100 volts on Franklin Street, west of Putnam, one unnumbered, the other numbered #55; 110 volts at Chestnut and Bowdoin streets ; 102 volts at Linden and Cedar streets, and 60 volts at Madison and Main streets. "There is nothing disputable about this," he said.

"WBZ recorded our activities, and testers found stray voltage in every one of these locations. The question I would ask is could some of these locations not have been tested properly (by National Grid)."

Amy Zorich, a National Grid spokeswoman, said all the city's streetlights were tested in 2006 as part of a state mandated testing program, and a complete test of all its systems was finalized last year. Since 2006, the company has also been testing 20 percent of its system each year.

In addition, National Grid has been working to improve its testing program by combining handheld testers with mobile platforms that are considered better able to detect stray voltage.

Worcester underground-fed streetlights have not been tested since 2006, however. Numbering more than 7,000, they are now the city's problem.

The issue of stray voltage was not discussed during negotiations when the city bought the street-lighting system from National Grid last year, but the city should now make sure these hotspots don't extend beyond the sites identified by Power Survey.

Bob Moylan, commissioner of public works and parks, said the city will test all underground-fed streetlights whenever work on the fixtures is done, and that approach will lead to all underground-fed streetlights being tested within three years.

But shouldn't all these fixtures be tested now, given the recent findings?

That should be the question, not whether WBZ-TV or Power Survey had ulterior motives in bringing the issue to the fore.

Contact Clive McFarlane via e-mail at cmcfarlane@telegram.com
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 13, 2011
Words:756
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