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Winter Weather on Both Coasts Generates Calls to Send Power Lines Underground

Revised American National Standard Keeps Underground Connections Uniform

New York, Jan 28, 2003

December brought fierce winter weather to much of the East Coast, including devastating ice storms that deprived 2 million North Carolinians of power and caused President Bush to declare South Carolina a disaster area eligible for federal aid. On the opposite coast, roaring Santa Ana winds in southern California downed live power lines in early January, setting off fires, closing schools and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity. The power outages and damage done by ice-heavy tree limbs or wind knocking down overhead lines has provoked many residents and local officials to call for burying power lines underground.

While sending power lines underground would guarantee safety and avoid outages in the face of traumatic weather, it is also an enormous and extremely expensive undertaking. A spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric in California quoted the cost of moving lines underground at about $1 million a mile. The work requires the installation of all new equipment along with major engineering to accommodate telephone and cable lines that also use phone poles. With 131,000 miles of lines, PG&E could spend nearly $1 trillion on a complete changeover.

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley appointed a panel to study trimming down trees and burying power lines as ways to prevent future storm-related blackouts. Currently, 25 percent of utility company Duke Power's existing system is underground. Most new developments in the region do opt to bury lines and there is undergrounding work is in progress to remove unsightly power lines from commercial areas being renovated. Yet utility companies like Duke Power and PG&E argue that in addition to the sheer expense of retrofitting, another deterrent for changing to underground lines is that finding and repairing problems below ground can be more expensive and time-consuming for utility companies.

For those systems that do exist underground, electrical industry standards help to minimize delays and difficulties when making improvements or repairs. As technical expressions of how to make a product safe, efficient, and compatible with others, standards allow various components in a system to be replaced without concern over the manufacturer or date of manufacture, and training of personnel and stocking of components are also simplified.

ANSI member and accredited standards developer, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), recently released ANSI C119.1-2002, American National Standard for Electric Connectors—Sealed Insulated Underground Connector Systems Rated 600 Volts. ANSI C119.1 covers sealed, insulated underground connector systems rated at 600 volts for utility applications and establishes electrical, mechanical, and sealing requirements for sealed underground connector systems. A connector system consists of a connector, a device that joins two or more conductors to provide a continuous electrical path, as well as its associated insulating and sealing components.

According to James Zahnen, chairman of the ANSI C119.1 subcommittee that performed the revision, “Since this is the utility industry’s standard for secondary, sealed underground distribution connectors and the trend is moving heavily toward underground distribution, this standard now covers a greater percentage of secondary distribution connectors.”

While communities will continue to debate the issue over underground installation, industry standards serve to benefit both residents and utility companies in keeping the flow of power safe and sure.

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