Power Cables: the Different Types, Their Advantages and Possible Dangers
There are parts of your home electric system that you think about all the time. You dial the thermostat down during the summer and up when it's cold outside. You flick off the lights when you leave a room. On the other hand, you probably haven't thought about the municipal power lines that connect your home to the power grid. In fact, the only time we think about them is when something goes wrong. These power cables are an important reason for the high American standard of living. No matter which kind of lines you have here in New York, there are benefits and dangers, and it pays to keep them in mind every so often.
According to Brad Johnson, an independent energy advisor for the Edison Electric Institute, approximately 80 percent of the American electric grid consists of overhead installations. There are a number of advantages, the greatest of which is probably ease of access. If something goes wrong with a power line, workers can simply climb a pole or use a lift to reach it. This kind of installation is also the cheapest.
People often wonder how power lines can withstand the constant force of the elements. The wind and rain do indeed put a lot of stress on the system. However, power lines are bracketed to poles in such a manner that the forces are transferred into the ground. The slack in the line also reduces the effect of the forces of the wind. You can even think of a power line as a very long guitar string. If the wind is just right, the wind will make power lines vibrate, sounding a musical tone.
The down side of overhead installation is the wide range of threats to the system. Falling tree branches cause thousands of outages every year. During ice storms, buildup on the lines can bring them to the breaking point. While utility poles are quite strong, one inattentive driver can impact a pole enough to bring the system down.
The alternative for many homeowners is to have their power cables changed from an overhead system to an underground one. In this system, the lines are buried a couple feet beneath the surface. This is usually done as close as possible to the property line so the system won't get in the homeowner's way during future construction. Homeowners with an underground installation don't have to worry about mowing and trimming the grass around a utility pole.
There are plenty of drawbacks. Chief among them is the cost of converting your overhead system to an underground one. Prices will vary by municipality, but Madison Gas and Electric estimates the transition will cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Why? There's an awful lot of manpower involved.
First, workers must dig a large enough trench from the street to the home's utility connection. This requires use of a backhoe. Workers must then lay underground cables and connect them to the grid. With prior authorization, you can also have your cable television or telephone connections buried, too. After the cables are put in place, workers must bury them and seed the new dirt so your lawn will return to normal in time. An installation can also become more complicated if you have a concrete patio or landscaping that will be difficult to remove. (It's also your responsibility to pay for that concrete to be re-poured.)
Underground electric also brings a new concern. When your power lines are above ground, they're easy to avoid. While there are always accidents, at least you can see the cables that supply your New York Electricity. Underground power lines are out of sight and out of mind, for better or worse. They're just as live as any other lines. Before engaging in any outdoor construction, you must call your utility and have the lines marked for you. (Other towns and municipalities may require further steps.) If you dig without identifying power lines and gas pipes, there could be serious consequences. A ruptured gas line can cause a fire, and live electric cables can easily send thousands of volts into anyone who touches them. The homeowner may be responsible for the cost of repairing the electric New York system. Worst of all, this can cause serious burns and can even kill a person.
Just like any other home improvement project, switching to underground electric is something you should consider carefully before you begin the process. Thanks to the hard work of electric engineers and scientists, we have a number of options and the future may indeed reveal more ways to keep the juice flowing into your home.