Northern utility breaks the ice with safer service and faster power restoration

2018-03-12 - Innovative product helps build stronger system after freakish Christmas ice storm blankets Great Lakes region of US and Canada

While a second massive snowstorm blankets the northeastern United States and Canada this spring, knocking out power to more than 1 million customers, some are finding that their downed lines are safer and their power is being restored faster thanks to lessons learned from a freak storm five years ago and an innovative new product from ABB.

The story starts with a massive ice storm that blitzed across the Northern Plains just before Christmas 2013, plunging more than 1 million people in darkness throughout the Great Lakes region of Canada and the Northern United States.

As utility crews struggled to repair lines stripped down by plummeting tree branches, engineers at one of the region’s major providers looked for ways to rebuild its extensive system of overhead lines stronger and safer than before — especially in the face of climate change that could conjure ever more powerful storms in the future.

Among the solutions they found in a multi-year drive to harden their system: a relatively new product called Homac® Storm-Safe® — a unique connector from Thomas & Betts, a member of the ABB Group, that keeps people safe from downed lines and helps utilities restore service faster.
As is common with overhead systems, a major focus of the region’s outages centered around what are known as service entrances — lines that connect residences or buildings to a neighborhood distribution line.

In a typical system, when an ice-laden tree branch crashes across a service entrance in, say, someone’s back yard, the weather head where the line enters the building is often pulled away or damaged, leaving a live power line dangling. The line remains a danger to residents and utility workers alike until power is shut off to the service point. And then, in many utility systems, the customer is required to find and hire an electrical contractor to repair the weather head.

Storm-Safe is a connector that distributes power from a neighborhood transmission line to individual buildings. It fastens to a power pole or to the midpoint of a line between two power poles. The product’s key innovation involves connection pins that are designed to pull out when major force hits the line, combined with engineered fastening links that break at 500 or 750 lbs. of force, depending on the link size. Since the line disconnects at the distribution end rather than pulling away from the customer’s building, the downed line is dead — which makes it much safer for residents and utility workers. And utility workers can simply replace the breakaway link and plug the lines back in to the Storm-Safe connector to restore service — a much easier process than splicing lines or repairing broken connections at the building.

The net result: Ice storms will still happen, but the power can be reconnected faster and more safely in neighborhoods where Storm-Safe is installed.

A typical Storm-Safe connection system attaches to a utility pole. Service connections and the attachment link are designed to release at the pole if a falling tree limb or some other heavy object strikes the lines. The de-energized lines are easy to reconnect.


As the disaster in the region gradually eased, the local Thomas & Betts sales team presented the Storm-Safe solution to utility managers who were anxious to improve the reliability of their lines, ABB Technical Sales Representative Andrew Fahmey said.
The proposed Storm-Safe solution quickly drew interest, Fahmey said. But prudent utilities usually require testing and experimentation prior to introducing new products into their systems on a large scale, so it took more than a year before one of the region’s utilities decided to slowly introduce Storm-Safe to its lines.

As part of the implementation, the utility requested a Storm-Safe version that would connect directly to the lines. ABB’s Homac research and development staff in Ormond Beach, Florida, created a Storm-Safe midline version in response to their request.

Once the midline version was developed, the utility installed in-line Storm-Safe connectors in a single neighborhood in a variety of ways — midspan between two poles and closer to the poles —to assess their performance through all of the region’s icy, wet, windy and hot weather cycles.
The connectors performed as expected. Now, the utility has expanded implementation. From just a handful of experimental Storm-Safe connectors installed in 2015, it ramped up to more than 450 installations in 2016 and nearly 2,900 in 2017. To this point, utility managers say they are pleased with the improved ability to deal with the region’s rough weather, even in the face of ongoing climate change.

System improvements, generically known as “hardening,” are an ongoing theme across North America as responsible utilities attempt to improve their sustainability in the face of worsening weather.

Storm-Safe is just another in a long line of Thomas & Betts innovations, dating back generations, that have given the utility industry a greater capability to keep the power on, regardless of weather conditions, said Mike Cawood, global product manager for ABB’s Homac® and Blackburn® distribution connectors.

“From insulated Elastimold elbows to our newest Storm-Safe and shear bolt connectors, we are always looking for ways to improve our utility partners’ ability to work quickly and safely, and their ability to keep the power on for their customers,” Cawood said. “We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge.”

Storm-Safe connectors can also be attached directly to a distribution line, thanks to a customized version developed for a utility in the Great Lakes region.




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