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The Hazards of Being a High Voltage Engineer

The residents of Phoenix, Arizona count on a reliable source of energy to sustain their daily activities and keep cool during the hot Arizona summers. The transmission of energy from power lines to our homes is not something we worry about, but an elite team of SRP linemen does. They’re a team of 10 highly trained experts who work on live power lines transmitting up to 500,000 volts. This is their story and, hopefully it highlights some of the extreme challenged my colleagues face as high voltage engineers.

Remember, they’re trying to do this with direct physical contact from electricity running through their bodies. They call this the bare hand method and what they do, nobody else in SRP does.  They are a specialized group and they can can do anything else the journeymen lineman does at SRP, but they cannot do what we do. This method is critical in allowing linemen to work on high-voltage transmission lines without taking those lines out of service  or causing power outages.

MIKE: “We do what we do, and we try and do it in this manner to keep things in service. If we lose one of these 500 lines, you could potentially have a whole city out of power.”

Because the lines are energized,  linemen must carefully coordinate their every move while they’re still on the ground. Once their plan is in place, they put on a special, stainless steel fabric suit with flame-resistant coating. The suit protects them by causing  the electricity to flow around their bodies. Then, they climb. Once they reach the power lines, the men remain isolated within the 500,000 volt phase. That means they have to stay on the line and no further than about 11 feet from it. Outside this parameter, they risk electrocution.  In essence, they’re like birds landing on a line. By remaining away from any ground potential, they don’t complete a circuit and avoid electrocution.

ROBERT: “It feels like something’s calling all over you. If you don’t have your hood on,  it feels like your hair’s calling everywhere.  If you stick your hand out, you can feel it;  you can feel the electricity escaping. The wire has a corona around it,  and if you go outside that corona, actually, the electricity will shoot out  of your fingers, away, and they’ll hurt. At 500,000 volts, you can hear the generator  at the power plant when you have your hood on. It’s that powerful.”

The bare hand method is used  to maintain transmission lines and make a number of  different types of repairs. By having hands-on contact with the power lines,  repairs are easier and quicker.

MIKE: “With the bare hand method,  you get to go right on the wire, energize yourself to the same potential as the line and do the work right there with your hands right in front of you. So it makes things much, much easier. There’s a multitude of things that could happen. We can change a string of insulators with the line still energized, we can take care things like gunshot conductors  or damage from most anything  that would damage the conductors. You can do this and still have the line energized, so we can — with no disruption in service —  we can take care of these jobs.”

The transmission tower located  just outside of Gold Canyon is over 150 feet high. The extreme height and high voltage means every team member must maintain  a high level of concentration and there’s no room for error.

ROBERT: “We have to depend on each other.  We cannot just come in and change our patterns;  we have a set pattern on everything we do.  We have one mistake out there,  and something drastic will happen.”

The stakes are high in this line of work, and trust is critical. They rely on each other to maintain safety and get the job done. This specialized group of linemen travels together  around the Valley and beyond and can sometimes work around the clock to make critical repairs. They know each other well,  respect each other like family, and have a unique kinship.

ROBERT: “We spend 10, 12, 14 hours a day together. Sometimes we spend weeks together out of town. I spend more time with these guys  than I do with my own family.  They are my family.”

The transmission of energy  from power lines to our homes is something we can take for granted every day, and this team of SRP linemen goes through  great lengths to make sure it stays that way.