Winter Storm Riley blasted electric utilities from Virginia to Maine with nearly hurricane-force winds, heavy snowfall and significant damage to infrastructure. Nearly 2.4 million customers — including more than 900,000 in Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Maryland — lost power along the East Coast.
Within the service territory of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC), high winds uprooted trees, which tore down lines and broke poles, inflicting 48,875 outages during a storm in early March. “This was the worst storm in years,” says Dan Swingle, NOVEC vice president of system operations. “Those winds with near-hurricane strength blew countless trees on power lines, broke poles and crossarms, and damaged transformers.”
The winter storm left no area untouched. NOVEC’s entire system — from Leesburg all the way down to Stafford, Virginia — was impacted. As a result, all the line crews in four different districts reported for duty, and all hands were on deck.
Calling Upon Crews
After notifying its field workforce of the impending storm, NOVEC dispatched its linemen, as well as its contractors, out to repair damage and restore power. When the linemen arrived on the scene, they were confronted by chilly temperatures and high winds.
The linemen first focused on restoring the critical and large-scale outages first, and then they worked their way down to restore power to the smaller groups of customers. Throughout NOVEC’s service territory, the high winds inflicted widespread damage. A total of 123 wood poles were broken and countless power lines, crossarms and tree limbs were scattered throughout the rights-of-way.
Once the crews reached the outage location, it often would take many hours to replace each broken pole, Swingle says. The work was not only time intensive, but it was also dangerous, as the crews were working around both chain saws and electricity. “Our most difficult challenge at this point is broken utility poles,” Swingle says. “We have to cut away branches; remove power lines, transformers and other equipment on the pole; erect and secure a new pole; and then reattach lines and equipment.”
In some areas, NOVEC’s crews worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation to remove trees blocking roads so trucks could access the outage locations. Tree crews and neighboring utilities and line contractors came to NOVEC’s aid following the storm. While the contractors replaced most of the broken poles, NOVEC’s linemen and mutual-aid crews focused on repairing the power lines and restoring power.
Working at 759 different outage locations in NOVEC’s six-county service territory, crews from Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee came to NOVEC’s aid. To ensure that the crews didn’t overlap during the restoration, the operations department segregated the crews in different areas of the restoration zone.
NOVEC linemen adhere strictly to all safety rules, and restoring power after storms is no exception, says Skip Hollcroft, NOVEC construction manager. In fact, he added that storms often bring additional dangers. “Improperly wired home generators can backfeed lethal voltages on to lines and equipment that linemen need to repair,” he says. “Always following safety rules helps to minimize these dangers.”
NOVEC also helps to ensure safety by providing its linemen with the proper personal protective equipment. For example, the linemen wear hard hats, steel-toed shoes, rubber gloves and sleeves, and safety glasses.
In addition, flame-retardant uniforms comprise a significant portion of linemen’s work wear. The cooperative provides flame-retardant uniforms, which includes long-sleeved, button-down shirts, pants and balaclavas from a local distributor. The linemen all purchase their own base layers, which are often made of merino wool, which offers warmth and moisture-wicking properties. To protect crews from the elements, NOVEC also provides linemen with a flame-retardant bib coverall and a jacket or hoodie to stay warm. In addition, the linemen slide a foot warmer inside their boots, don raingear and always bring an extra pair of socks out on storm duty.
The line crews stay safe in the field by also using the latest technology. For example, NOVEC’s linemen use various voltage detectors as part of their work procedures to verify that line and equipment are de-energized so they don’t walk up and start working on a line prior to testing it first. NOVEC also uses fault indicators to help identify trees and branches on power lines in wooded areas. “Our wide deployment of fault indicators is a big help in identifying trouble locations,” Hollcroft says.
Hollcroft asked the customers to be patient during the restoration effort as the linemen had to work in treacherous conditions to restore power. “Falling trees and branches from gusting winds as strong as 70 mph are creating hazardous work conditions,” he says.
When working in a storm response situation, continuous communication is also paramount. As such, the linemen all carry laptops, walkie-talkies and cell phones. Within their trucks, the NOVEC linemen store battery-powered tools, which help save shoulders and elbows, and minimize the amount of hand pumping.
Because of the high number of outages, the linemen worked 12-hour shifts to get the power back on for their customers. When necessary, they worked up to 16 hours a day, but they always ensured they got enough sleep so they were well rested for the next day’s shift. By taking turns, linemen worked around the clock until all the customers were back online.
After a long workday, the out-of-town crews stayed in local hotels, while most of the NOVEC linemen were about an hour’s drive from home. The next day, they would wake up and replace everything from 30 class 6 to 55 class 1 wood poles. In some locations, they scabbed, braced or splinted broken poles together so they could restore power. To do this, they would use everything from steel beams to crossarms to sections of old poles to keep the broken poles upright until they could be replaced with new structures.
For the next few weeks after the storm, the NOVEC crews focused on replacing temporarily repaired poles and working with right-of-way crews to remove trees that threatened to fall on power lines. By taking preventive steps, they can keep the lights on for NOVEC’s customers during the next storm. ♦
Joseph Walker is a lead line technician for NOVEC’s electric system development division in Gainesville, responsible for building and maintaining overhead and underground distribution systems. He has been with the company for nearly 31 years.
Check out the May 2018 issue for more articles, news and commentary.