Utility workers face tasks monumental and mundane

AP News
Posted: Nov 05, 2012 9:41 PM
Utility workers face tasks monumental and mundane

HOBOKEN, N.J. (AP) — For utility crews racing to restore power to residents of this waterfront city that have been sitting in the dark for a week, the task is both mundane and monumental: Clean a bunch of gunk off electrical equipment with rags and cleaning spray.

That's the way it has been across the Northeast, as crews clean, replace and fix the equipment needed to get the lights back on for millions of customers who lost power when Superstorm Sandy blew through.

In Hoboken, the salty, filthy floodwater of the Hudson River swamped a substation that relays power to 10,000 homes and businesses. It worked its way into switches and in between wires. It washed over the hunks of copper and silver capable of handling 26,000 volts of electricity. It fouled everything below a perfectly straight line of dirt on all the boxes of circuit breakers and transformers on site that marked the crest of the flood.

"It's getting the crud off," said Mike Fox, a Public Service Electric and Gas Co. engineer who was supervising the company's substation restoration. "It's nothing earth shaking, but it's a lot of stuff."

Sixty-seven thousand utility workers in the Northeast are working day and night on tasks they are familiar with: putting up telephone poles, stringing wire and replacing transformers. But Sandy's storm surge added another dimension by attacking the utilities' internal equipment. Switching stations, substations and underground electrical networks were inundated in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Hoboken and elsewhere.

But it's the sheer volume of work that is making the power outages last so long for some. At the peak, 8.5 million homes and businesses were without power. A week after the storm walloped the Northeast, 1.4 million customers remained in the dark, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Getting the power back on for all of them will take at least another week.

Frustration is turning to anger and despair. The air in the region has a winter chill and another storm is approaching. Some without power see neighbors with twinkling chandeliers even as they still use candles.

Fox gets it. He has been taking cold showers and using a flashlight to shave every morning before setting out from his house in Westfield, N.J. to the substations that need repair. On Sunday his neighbors started an email exchange suggesting they complain to PSE&G in hopes of getting service back quicker.

"I had to head them off at the pass, and explain why it can take so long," he said. "Every day people get a little more strained and stressed. I'd be losing patience too if I had time to."

Local workers have plenty of help: Utility crews from as far away as the West Coast started streaming toward the Northeast in their bucket trucks even before the storm hit. But feeding, housing and outfitting thousands of out-of-state workers has its own challenges.

Utilities have agreements with local hotels to house workers, but as the extent of the damage became apparent, and homeowners abandoned their powerless homes for hotel rooms, a housing crunch developed.

A crew from Duke Energy that specializes in underground electricity transmission based in Cincinnati arrived in New York on Wednesday to help Consolidated Edison restore power to lower Manhattan. Getting a hotel in New York was even tougher than advertised.

The crew was first sent to a Girl Scout Camp near Rye, N.Y. After that was the Marriot Marquis in Times Square. But instead of getting a room they were asked to "hot bed," military style: they'd get a bed for 8 hours before they had to pack up and leave. Next stop: The Hudson River. They were put on a dinner cruise boat called the Hornblower Infinity docked at Pier 41 that had rows of cots where tables and chairs once sat.

Finally, on Saturday, they were moved — for good it seems — to the Hudson Hotel, a boutique luxury hotel on 58th Street. Not a bad upgrade.

For the workers on loan to PSE&G, the day starts at 6 a.m. when busses take them from their hotels to staging areas like the one in the gigantic parking lot at the Garden State Plaza, in Paramus, NJ.

The staging area was set up with the help of 10 logistics experts from Florida Power & Light who know a thing or two about hurricanes. It operates like a giant outdoor assembly line. Workers climb into 800 trucks parked at the site that have been fueled overnight with tanker trucks brought in from Pennsylvania. They pick up their instructions and a PSE&G worker called a "bird dog" that knows the service territory.

They proceed in two columns past pallets stacked with parts and equipment and pick up what they need for the day — wire, insulators, brackets — and bagged lunches. Then they head off for 16 hours of line work.

At a site in Allendale, N.J., one huge tree had taken town five utility poles and 11 sets of wire. A Centerpoint Energy team of 15 workers and 8 trucks — one with a Texas flag flying from its crane — labored much of the day and into the night digging holes for the poles, raising them, and hanging new wire.

Shane Pittman, a Centerpoint worker from Angleton, Texas, arrived with his crew on Oct. 29. Other than the number of trees and the cold — it was the first hurricane cleanup he had done that required winter clothing — he said it was just like back home.

PSE&G said it is using 4,000 out-of-state workers to erect at least 1,000 new poles in its service territory. As of Monday, the company had restored service to 1.3 million of the 1.7 million who lost power in its service territory. It has also restored power to 78 percent of the gas stations in its region, which should ease the long lines seen at stations that had both power and fuel.

The Duke Energy team in Manhattan spent its first day climbing under streets on the West Side, pumping water out of vaults and disconnecting switches that were ruined by the flooding. After ConEd restored power to the networks that serve Lower Manhattan, the Duke team visited customers who were still without power to determine if the utility needs to fix equipment or if the customer has a problem in the building that an electrician must address.

The substation in Hoboken was being worked over by a team of 40 that included local contractors and a team from Kansas City Power & Light.

The Hoboken substation was built in 1953, and it is powered with equipment that has been there ever since. There are no replacement parts for the bank of circuit breakers that manages the electricity's journey from 4 incoming lines to 13 outgoing ones. So the workers have had to pull these breakers out of their boxes and truck them to a machine shop in Connecticut that specializes in reconditioning old electrical equipment.

On a temporary work bench made out of plywood and a large white plastic crate, a team was taking apart sensors that measure electricity flowing though the equipment and trigger switches. Each part had to be taken apart wiped meticulously cleaned with cleaning spray, rags and brushes, and put back together.

A contractor was stuffed in a cinderblock control room on site with a voltage meter, testing each individual wire to make sure it was still good. A team of workers from KCP&L was poring over a diagram of the control panel of one of the station's transformers to make sure they had rewired it correctly.

At 10:30 Monday morning workers flipped the switch and reenergized the substation and power began to flow through 8 of the 13 circuits. Unfortunately for Hoboken customers, this is only a first step: While power is flowing from the substation into the local grid, PSE&G can only now start looking for problems in the wires, switches and transformers that deliver the power to residents — and send another crew out to fix it.

Follow Jonathan Fahey on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JonathanFahey .