Quanta Technology Blog

What’s Going on Down There?

Just what exactly is going on down there?

On July 14, 2008, at 8:54 a.m., the city of Vancouver, BC made national and international headlines after a fire erupted in an electrical manhole in the busy downtown Vancouver streets. The impacts to the city and to the electrical system were significant. By the time the fire was extinguished, damage from the fire destroyed 14 circuits and 2,000 BC Hydro customers were without electrical service some for more than 3 days.

Recently, more underground system failures have come up to the surface (pardon the pun!) on the front pages of newspapers and web pages alike.

  • Columbus, Ohio, February 28, 2014, 1:30 a.m. – An underground explosion is reported to Columbus police, with a second manhole explosion an hour later. No injuries were reported as several manholes were blown open. The outage impacted customers for almost 24 hours before service was restored. Adding insult to injury, the local utility headquarters office was one of the customers impacted. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio offices were also closed due to the outage.
  • Calgary, Alberta, October 11, 2014, 8:30 p.m. – An explosion trailed by an aggressively burning electrical fire lit up the night skyline, accompanied by dozens of fire brigade and utility truck strobe lights. Four days later when the last of the 5,000 customers was restored, more than 2 miles (3.5 km) of underground cable had been replaced. Customers as far as 20 blocks away were impacted by this outage that left downtown Calgary looking like a ghost town.
  • Islington, England, October 16, 2014, 10:00 p.m. – Not far from the London Metropolitan University, there was a report of a manhole explosion and fire. This was not the first for the local electrical network provider. in fact, they have had more than 60 so far in 2014. Pavement damage was coupled with at least one injury, while the 200 customers in the north London suburb dealt with power outages through the night. The U.K. Telegraph reports that the Health and Safety Executive (the U.K. version of the U.S. OSHA or Canadian CCOHS) has formally warned the network operator that immediate improvement to performance is expected.
  • Richmond, Indiana, October 25, 2014, 5:45 p.m. – Explosions were reported in front of the municipal building of this city of 36,000 nested against the Ohio-Indiana border. Outages were minimal, but evacuations of the area were ordered and Richmond Power & Light personnel surveyed the impacted area extensively through the evening before declaring the event over.
  • Laredo, Texas, November 6, 2014, 6:00 p.m. – A manhole explosion rocked a portion of the Texas border city spewing a pillar of smoke high above the surrounding retail shops. 133 customers were without power, some for as long as 5 days.

In many downtown centers, aging underground network systems are commonplace. These systems exist worldwide, in large metropolitan areas and small rural communities, as evidenced by the small selection of examples above. Underground networks typically deliver some of the best distribution reliability performance, but such levels of reliability can lull utility management into complacency, leading to reduced spending on inspection programs and maintenance projects.

In some cases, issues with aging network facilities are known or identified, but corrective action is too costly or difficult to coordinate due to the need for complicated customer outages or street closures. These performance risks are weighed against other more urgent, or more visible, utility priorities and often the performance risks are deemed acceptable. Incidents like the above raise the question of whether such risks should be re-assessed as these early network systems enter the later phases of their useful lives.

There are no direct physical connections between any of the above events and, in fact, the root causes for many are still under investigation. However, each case should lead a utility to ask: How are your older underground systems operating today? When will that next big failure happen? Am I ready for the worst case scenario?

These recent events illustrate that the time is ripe (or nearly so) for utilities to revisit these early systems and re-assess their adequacy. By performing a condition assessment and risk evaluation, a utility can plan for, or even avoid, a catastrophic event. With aging underground systems the question utilities must ask is a simple one: "Just what exactly is going on down there?"

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