City Responds to Chelsea's Recent Power Outages


Chelsea has three electrical substations powering the City. This one is on Garfield St. Image: Google.

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

Chelsea has been experiencing power outages lately. A call into new City Manager Roy Atkinson, Utilities Director Ray Schmidt, and Electrical Superintendent Chuck Stephens shined some light on the situation.

The problem is squirrels.

“A lot of the issues we’re having are because of squirrels,” explained Atkinson. “That’s accounted for three of the outages we’ve had in the three weeks I’ve been here. You never think about it, but squirrels can really cause quite a pickle.”

Atkinson is starting his fourth week on the job and is quickly becoming acquainted with Chelsea’s unique position of owning and operating its own power grid. Controlling its power source has benefited City residents in rate reduction and service, especially getting power back on when it goes out.

Utilities Director Schmidt explained how a squirrel knocks out the power.

“There’s a lot of walnut trees in town which means a lot of squirrels in town,” says Schmidt. “They get up on the wires where the switch and fuse are, and if they tick the primary or secondary, they ground it. Then, the fuse blows, or the recloser at the substation will rachet. That’s common.”

Simply put, while touching a live wire, the squirrels touch metal grounded to the pole, and the animal completes the electrical circuit.

“In most cases, we have the power restored in less than an hour,” adds Schmidt. “It’s important to find what is left of the squirrel because that tells us what caused the outage and that it’s not a problem further down the line.”

Schmidt also explained that when a squirrel has been the cause, a wrap is placed around the pole, preventing the animals from climbing to the transformers. But, it doesn’t stop them from jumping off a branch and doing a high wire walk to reach a transformer.

Squirrels aren’t the only critter problem Schmidt has seen causing power outages. Hawks, opossums, and many other birds get up there and create problems.

“When a bird gets up on the wire, if it spreads its wings and touches two of the phases, it becomes the fuse and blows a switch,” says Stephens.

In the not-too-distant past, such incidents could cause fires because the power kept running after an electrical short. Fires would have to be put out in trees or worse, rooftops. But thanks to protective sensors, the electricity is shut off in such cases. Stephens added that Chelsea’s protection system protects the system devices from burning and directly protects the public. He explained that when a live wire falls to the ground in Chelsea, it trips the fuse and cuts off the electricity.

“Some other systems can have a wire on the ground, and it burns and burns,” says Stephens. “It’s live, and nobody knows. That’s why electricity is called the ‘silent killer.’ Chelsea’s got protection in there to save the public.”

But why now? Why are all the outages so close together?

“The best way I can describe it is that these outages are like other things that happen in groups,” says Atkinson. “It gives the appearance of a system that needs maintenance and upgrades. But no, that’s not the case. Our system is functioning 100% the way that it should. Very little can be done to stop environmental factors such as animals or storms.”

“But the big difference from other power companies is how fast we respond and restart the power,” he adds. “In the short time I’ve been here, I can say that our utility crew is very responsive. More so than most other entities out there. That’s why we’re second to none.”

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