Squirrels: Electricity's Furry Killer and Data's Worst Nightmare

October 21, 2013

  By Michael Mayday, Power Protection Contributing Writer

Early on a Sunday morning in Morganton, NC, a squirrel did what squirrels are wont to do: scamper up and down and across power lines. But one squirrel made the fatal mistake of climbing atop of a local substation and touching, however briefly, a Duke Energy (News - Alert) high-voltage power line.

When that happened, the squirrel created a short circuit and left this mortal coil, taking with it – albeit temporarily – the electric fuel for about one fourth of Morganton's 17,000 citizens in what was likely a spectacular flash.

As nutty as it may sound, squirrels causing power outages to large swaths of consumers isn't as uncommon as one would be led to believe. In fact, it's such a common occurrence that power companies don't bother tracking how often squirrels, or birds, causes an outage.

"We typically have outages caused by birds and squirrels, but what has been unusual is that these types of outages have affected such large groups of customers," Brooks Kirby, Electric Department Director of Morgantown, N.C., said in an interview with local broadcast station WBTV. "As a rule, a bird or squirrel will knock out power to one or two homes, but this year has been quite different."

Image of allegedly guilty party courtesy Shutterstock

Different indeed. As New York Times opinion writer Jon Mooallem tracks obsessively in his piece "Squirrel Power!" squirrels were responsible for 50 power outages in 24 states over a 100 day-period this year alone. And there've been some historic incidents as well: in 1987, Mooallem notes, a squirrel managed to knock out power to the NASDAQ trading system for 82 minutes – a phenomenon which was repeated in 1994 for 30 minutes.

Such instances, for some, are unacceptable. But there are ways to deal with the wily nature of squirrels, and they're called uninterrupted power supplies (UPCs). UPCs, such as those provided by Minuteman — a power technology company specializing in keeping data online when local power goes offline — can help businesses protect and preserve data when power either wanes, like in a brownout, or drops off completely, like in a blackout.

But it appears some in Morganton may have lucked out: its power-sucking squirrel managed to time its shocking end when the city's demand for power was at its weekly lowest, Kirby said, allowing city employees to quickly repair the line.

"As for the squirrels, I wish it was open season year round," Kirby said to WBTV. "Some folks may see them as pretty furry little critters that need protection but to those whose lives are adversely affected by them they are, as my grandfather once said, nothing but wire-eating tree rats."

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