By David Kligman
On an early Sunday evening last month, some 6,000 customers in Berkeley lost power. Hours later, another outage in the city impacted an additional 1,000 households.
Neighbors reported a buzzing sound, flickering lights and suddenly no power.
“It was as if someone was zapping Frankenstein’s monster to life,” one resident said.
The cause of the outage wasn’t a thunderstorm or anything weather related, but something seemingly harmless—helium-filled metallic or Mylar balloons. The shiny surface of the balloon acts as a conductor and even just one balloon can create a short circuit if it gets caught in a power line.
In fact, metallic balloons that get tangled in power lines can disrupt electric service to an entire neighborhood while causing significant property damage.
PG&E’s request to the public: Dispose of balloons properly just as you’d recycle plastic bottles or aluminum cans.
Tethered weights required outdoors
California law requires that stores must sell metallic balloons tethered to weights and many parks ban the balloons. But that doesn’t stop wayward balloons from creating problems.
In 2010, metallic balloons that drifted into PG&E power lines caused more than 250 outages, impacting electric service to nearly 130,000 customers throughout Northern and Central California. In Southern California, nearly 620,000 Southern California Edison customers had their power interrupted last year due to metallic balloon-related outages.
Outages can be costly and inconvenient. Last year, a flyaway metallic balloon in San Francisco’s Mission District led to an outage that shut down businesses for hours and grounded electric buses.
Celebrating with metallic balloons near power lines can also be deadly. In the most dangerous circumstances, metallic balloons can cause power lines to fall to the ground. Even though power lines are designed to de-energize if they fall, in some cases lines can remain live, creating the potential for fires and serious injuries if someone makes contact with the wire. And experts warn never to try to retrieve a balloon from a power line, an action that is incredibly dangerous and could be deadly.
The problem is more common during the late spring and summer months when metallic balloons are most popular as people celebrate graduations, birthdays and reunions.
Problem most common in residential areas
Jason Regan, who oversees electrical maintenance and construction in the San Francisco Bay Area for PG&E, said the reason metallic balloons are such a danger is that the problem is most common in residential areas.
“We’ve had situations where lines end up across fences, in front of homes, in backyards,” he said. “I’ve even seen one end up on a car.”
“Look, I’m a father of four kids so I understand the joy of balloons to kids,” Regan added. “But I also recognize that people do just let balloons fly away and figure somebody else will deal with them. I think we have a real opportunity here to improve public safety and minimize power interruptions.”
To significantly reduce such outages, PG&E reminds customers to follow these important safety tips for metallic balloons:
- Use caution and avoid celebrating with metallic balloons near overhead electric lines.
- Make sure helium-filled metallic balloons are securely tied to a weight that is heavy enough to prevent them from floating away. Never remove the weight.
- When possible, keep metallic balloons indoors. Never release them outside.
- Do not bundle metallic balloons together.
- Never attempt to retrieve any type of balloon, kite or toy that becomes caught in a power line. Leave it alone and immediately call PG&E at 1-800-743-5000 to report the problem.
- Never go near a power line that has fallen to the ground or is dangling in the air. Always assume downed electric lines are live. Stay far away, keep others away and immediately call 911 to alert the police and fire departments.