While storms can and do happen all throughout the year, spring in Co-op Country is known for violent thunderstorms. Whether you live down south in the Brush Country of Dimmit and Zalava Counties, in the High Desert of the Big Bend, or near the majestic Guadalupe Mountains, thunderstorms can pose a danger to you, your property, and animals. They can also wreak havoc on Rio Grande Electric Cooperative's (RGEC's) electric distribution system.
Some of the most significant impacts of early spring severe weather include large hail, high winds, lightning, and the occasional tornado. When we say “large hail”, that routinely includes all the garden variety sports ball sized hail -- tennis, baseball, and golf. In certain instances, like the storm that struck the counties of Val Verde, Kinney and Uvalde in March of 2002, it can include grapefruit-sized hail, as well. Property damage in the form of broken windows, dented cars, and damaged roofs are often seen. The storm that struck Batesville, down in Zavala County, March 29 of 1993 damaged over 200 homes. Residents of Crystal City will never forget the April 4, 2004 giant hail storm, when thunderstorm-driven winds combined with hail up to 3 inches destroyed several homes, blew the roof off the public library, and collapsed the roof of the H.E.B. store.
What does this have to do with electric service? Just like your homes, vehicles, library, or grocery store, the Co-op’s equipment is exposed to the elements. It is likely the highest point on the horizon, which puts a bullseye on it for Mother Nature.
Damaged insulators are often the cause of outages and pole top fires. The insulators are made from materials that resist the flow of electric current. They keep the electric lines from touching the poles or other electric lines, and are necessary to deliver your power. Hail can crack or chip the porcelain insulators, allowing the electricity to “track” a path to the ground. This type of damage can be almost impossible to detect by linemen patrolling the lines, or even with the drones, which RGEC has begun to employ for the purpose of patrolling lines. Even a hairline fracture can cause a major outage.
We usually think of only thunderstorms as causing problems, but dry conditions can also create problems which go undetected until moisture sets a disastrous chain of events in motion. The villain in this scenario is dust. It’s hard to believe something most of us consider mildly irritating, and to be dealt with only when cleaning house or washing the car, could cause such problems for the electric distribution system. But under certain conditions, dust can be just as devastating as a lighting strike. It accumulates on insulators, and when it combines with moisture of any kind -- even humidity, it can create a path which conducts electricity. This is called a “flashover”. Flashovers often start fires on the tops of poles. There is just no practical way to keep insulators dust-free in RGEC’s service territory of approximately 35,000 square miles, with 9,998 miles of energized line, and 126 miles of transmission line.
Lightning can also damage the Co-op’s equipment -- as well as your own. Rio Grande utilizes sensitive equipment which communicates with substations, meters, and transformers. There are lightning mitigation devices installed in conjunction with these, however, a direct strike or even a strong indirect strike can damage them, and potentially cause an outage. Your own home wiring, satellite dish, cable, and even plumbing can serve as medium for lightning to enter your home’s electrical system. When this happens, your electronic devices and delicate items such as computer, audio, and video equipment could be irreparably damaged. In order to protect your electronics, consider a reliable surge protection device.
Wind alone can both cause and contribute to outages. One member recently posed a question via Facebook, in which she asked why there can be blinks on a sunny day, with no storms, and just the wind blowing. This could be for a couple of reasons. The first and most common involves tree limbs coming into contact with the lines. When RGEC’s equipment senses a fault on the line, it attempts to clear it before shutting down and causing an outage. The blinks you perceive as something wrong, are not a bad thing at all, and mean the equipment is functioning properly in attempting to clear the fault.
There is a second scenario in which wind causes outages, being that of lines slapping together or “galloping”. Galloping occurs when freezing rain creates icicles and odd shaped ice on the lines, especially on one side. When this happens, it changes the flow of air around the line, and causes it to start bouncing. There is not much any utility can do to alleviate it until the winds subside. This happens not only on the Co-op’s distribution lines, but also on transmission lines.
Rio Grande does what it can to mitigate the effects of weather on your electric service. We stage stores of supplies and materials at strategic locations throughout the service territory to cut repair response time in the event of widespread damage. RGEC continues to utilize technology and materials to harden the distribution system against the effects of weather, to the extent practical, and we strive to resolve outages as quickly and efficiently as possible, to serve you.
Have you “herd”? It’s storm season. When severe storms strike, livestock is often at risk of injury or death due to exposure to the elements, falling objects, flying debris, and yes, even falling electric lines or poles.
Storms are considered force majeure. As such, loss of livestock in storms is not subject to coverage under RGEC’s insurance policy. The Co-op’s insurance policy provides coverage only in the event that RGEC has been negligent in the operation or maintenance of facilities or equipment. A tornado, lightning strike, high winds, etc., are not events over which RGEC has any control. While we certainly sympathize with those who lose a valuable or dearly beloved animal, there is nothing that can be done monitarily.
Those with valuable livestock should consider insuring them. A good resource can be found on the USDA’s Risk Management website. Or visit your local USDA Farm Service Agency.