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State Agency Orders Utilities to Assess Contact Voltage Threats

Board of Public Utilities tells state power companies to determine if contact voltage presents a danger in NJ.

In New York City a few years ago, a woman walking along the streets stepped onto a manhole cover and was electrocuted. In Baltimore, the 14-year-old daughter of a former NFL football player died after she touched an electrified fence at a softball game. Probably, neither had ever heard of the phenomenon known as contact voltage.

The state is ordering its four electric utilities to determine whether contact voltage, or faults in a power system that can prove hazardous to humans and pets, is a problem that needs to be dealt with in New Jersey.

The Board of Public Utilities (BPU) yesterday directed the companies to assess the extent of the problem and to recommend if there should be better reporting of cases involving electric shock with energized objects.

Some commissioners called the assessment long overdue, given the risks associated with the issue.

"It’s a sad state of affairs when we have to order utilities to look at safety issues in their own infrastructure," said BPU Commissioner Nicholas Asselta, at a bimonthly meeting of the state agency in its Trenton offices. "I hope this is a wake-up call for the utilities."

The agency has been examining the problem since it first began holding stakeholder hearings with the utilities and other interested parties this past August. At the time, the utilities said the state’s current rules are adequate to deal with any potential problems, which they argued were minimal at most.

More Than 400 Threats Detected

That view was countered by Power Survey Company, a Kearny-based company that provides detection services to help root out contact voltage problems. It conducted a survey of 33 urban municipalities, mostly in northern New Jersey, and detected 408 energized objects, according to a presentation it made to the agency in August.

Contact voltage is mostly a problem in urban areas where underground wires are buried and the infrastructure is aging, with a lot of foot traffic creating potential situations where contact with energized objects, such as manhole covers, streetlights and parking meters, is more common. In addition to aging, objects can become energized because of accidents and faulty workmanship.

New Jersey’s largest utility, Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), said it will furnish the agency with further information regarding its limited experiences with contact voltage, according to Bonnie Sheppard, spokeswoman. The utility recently surveyed all of its streetlight poles and randomly sampled its manholes for contact voltage. It does spot inspections of its equipment every year.

An Underground Issue

"We have never had a reportable incident involving contact voltage causing injury to members of the public, employees or contractors," Sheppard said. "Moreover, contact voltage concerns electric utility underground infrastructure and, unlike New York City, most of New Jersey’s electric utility distribution infrastructure, including PSE&G's, is overhead."

Ron Morano, a spokesman for Jersey Central Power & Light Co., the state’s second-largest utility, with more than 1 million customers, said the utility has not yet seen the written order, but added, "We understand it applies mainly to underground networks in urban areas. We have limited exposure to those situations."

BPU President Lee Solomon noted the agency does not yet know the extent of problems with contact voltage, but Asselta said it has been a big problem in New York. Commissioner Jeanne Fox urged the agency’s staff to find out how the neighboring state has dealt with the problem.

According to Power Survey, contact voltage test programs and reporting requirements do exist in other states. After the death in New York City, the New York Public Service Commission mandated that all NY cities with populations in excess of 50,000 be scanned for contact voltage via mobile detection, because it was shown that mobile detection is more effective and less costly than any other means of detection.

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