The lettered metallic balloons were stacked perhaps 10-ft tall, the troubleman removing them from power lines was 5 ft 8. And the continuing problem? Well, it's much bigger than either of them.
Southern California Edison experienced 1,022 outages caused by metallic balloons last year, affecting 1.07 million customers and leading to 2,123 hours of lost power — a slight dip from the previous two years but still the third-most outages ever.
Valentine's Day leads to a spike in the popularity of the colorful gifts that in turn triggers a sharp increase in balloon-related outages that typically doesn't peak until June's graduations. SCE troublemen like Jeff Seale are ready to protect critical needs like medical facilities and traffic lights by removing them from power lines and equipment, whether they’re like the 10-footer he vividly recalls or smaller.
"I remove metallic balloons from power lines a couple times a week or nearly every other day," said Seale, a 30-year SCE employee who has been a troubleman for 25 years. "People are pretty used to calling in when they see them. I'd say maybe a quarter of them are old and deflated, but, more often than not, it's a fresh one floating away that got stuck or one coming down."
That "fresh one floating away" or "coming down" is the crux of a lingering problem with a simple solution.
"Never, ever, release metallic balloons outdoors and always secure them to a weight, as required by state law, or something else sturdy like a table," said Andrew Martinez, SCE vice president of Safety, Security & Business Resiliency. "Keep them indoors, if possible, but releasing them into the air can threaten public safety."
This is a problem that Seale knows firsthand from his patrols of the San Gabriel Valley.
"More often than not, I'm responding to an outage or wire down as a result of a balloon that blew up," he said.
Such balloon explosions can have serious consequences, especially when they bring down power lines as they did 98 times last year, potentially leading to serious injuries and property damage. SCE reminds customers to stay away and call 911 if they ever see downed lines.
As for the consequences, they also apply to workers like Seale, who deploy electrically insulated tools to remove the balloons. It is not uncommon for the balloons, often shifting in the wind, to explode above or near utility workers preparing to remove them.
Because of the safety threat, easily avoided outages and dramatic increase in those outages every February, SCE continues its territory-wide safety campaign to educate customers about the hazards of released metallic balloons, downed power lines and more.
And, of course, it's the balloons that Seale encounters most.
"I think tree branches and palm fronds are the second-most prevalent, but they are typically more associated with a wind event," said Seale. "I think the balloons are a regular occurrence and the easiest to prevent."