Of squirrels and substations
A York County company is helping America's power industry battle one of its bitterest and most insidious enemies.
I speak, of course, of the squirrel.
Squirrels — along with their partners in crime, raccoons and snakes — knock out dozens of substations each year, inconveniencing thousands of households and businesses and costing utilities millions of dollars in repairs and lost revenue.
"It's a big problem," Bill Reichard said.
Regulators consider animal-caused outages avoidable and take points off utilities' reliability ratings when they occur, he said.
Reichard is general manager of TransGard Systems Inc. in Shrewsbury Township. The company makes electrified fences designed to keep animals away from sensitive equipment.
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The systems are similar to those used in cattle enclosures, Reichard said. They deliver a mild shock, enough to drive the animal away without hurting it. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ranked TransGard's barriers the most effective in the industry, the company's website says.
I found out about TransGard through an email sent to a colleague of mine that listed the "top five animal-caused substation outages of 2012." Here are two:
• A snake triggered an explosion in early May in a substation in Oklahoma City, cutting power to 14,000 customers.
• More than 3,000 people lost power in December in Havasu, Ariz., when a ringtail cat (a kind of raccoon) got caught between two conductors.
That's a lot of mayhem for one snake and one raccoon! Animals are drawn to transformers because they're warm, Reichard said.
TransGard was founded in 1990 in upstate New York; for several years, it worked exclusively with Rochester Gas & Electric, Reichard said. In the late 1990s, it started selling its products to other utilities, and in 2009 it moved to York County "to take advantage of centralized distribution and the area's manufacturing workforce," as the company's website puts it.
TransGard employs six to 15 people, depending on the season, Reichard said. Its products protect about 2,500 substations, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, with a few in Latin America, he said.
That's a small part of the potential market, and utilities build substations all the time, so there is plenty of room for growth, he said.
TransGard installed a fence at one PPL site as a demonstration, he said, but the substation was taken offline in less than a month. You need about a year to show that a fence is effective in reducing outages, Reichard said.
"We'd love to get the opportunity," Reichard said.
When squirrels take out a substation, it's what you might call an inadvertent kamikaze operation — i.e., they don't survive the experience. So they'd probably like TransGard to get the opportunity, too.