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Stray Voltage in North Carolina Part 1 of 3

Stray voltage blamed for pool owners' jolts

By Andrew Barksdale
Staff writer, http://www.fayettevillenc.com/story.php?Template=local&Story=6297101

Residents in one western Cumberland County neighborhood say they get shocked using their swimming pools and blame the power company, Lumbee River Electrical Membership Corp.

Company officials said they properly maintain their underground electrical system. They said the source of the problem is with out-of-code pools that are improperly grounded to avert stray voltage.

One neighbor, Elizabeth Dixon, said an electrician has visited her pool twice in the past month to ensure that it's properly grounded. Family members still receive shocks getting in and out of the pool.

''I wanted it fixed because I've got people who won't even go in because they can feel the shock so severely,'' she said.

Dixon lives in Arran Lakes West off Fisher Road near John Griffin Middle School.

Another neighbor, Dorcia Bryant, said there is stray voltage around her pool after the power to her home is turned off.

''To be quite frank, it scares the hell out of me,'' she said.

Reasons for stray voltage include poor underground wiring, faulty equipment or metal surfaces and buildings inadequately grounded. Normally, voltage levels are undetectable by human touch. In other cases, people feel a tingling sensation.

In 2002, several families in New Jersey complained of getting shocked using their pools and spas. The state's board of utilities determined that stray voltage was coming from a utility's transformers and distribution system. The state ordered Jersey Central Power and Light Co. to fix the problem.

In January, a Manhattan woman died while walking her dog after she stepped onto a metal plate that been electrified by a faulty underground cable. In February, a Milwaukee jury awarded a family $850,000 in damages after it found a utility negligent of allowing too much stray voltage in its underground distribution system, sickening the family's dairy cows.

Frustrations

Lonn Rickstrom, another Arran Lakes West resident who discovered the same problem with his pool last summer, said Lumbee River technicians have been to his home numerous times and so have county inspectors. His pool is about 8 years old.

''It's pure frustration,'' Rickstrom said.

The county's chief electrical inspector, Marvin Hamilton, wrote Rickstrom on Feb. 3 that he has seen this problem before involving Lumbee River's service area and believes ''the problem to be in the grounding of the power company transformers.''

''The power company driving in enough ground rods at each transformer to remove the fault can solve the problem as I have seen Lumbee River do in the past,'' Hamilton wrote.

A transformer is an above- ground box about 3 feet high placed next to a home on a concrete pad.

After Lumbee officials and members of county management criticized Hamilton for his opinion, Hamilton wrote the company in March that Lumbee River officials have ''done everything in their power to correct the problem'' and said Rickstrom needed to correct items on his property to alleviate the problem.

Tracy Bensley, vice president of engineering and operations for Lumbee, said the utility gets ''several calls a year'' with the same problem. In each case, he said, the problem was linked to improperly grounded pools.

''There is a problem, but it's not with Lumbee River,'' he said.

Pools are properly grounded, he said, when all of the metal components are bounded, or connected, by a copper wire that leads to a grounding rod.

Bensley disputed Hamilton's claim that Lumbee has fixed the problem before by regrounding its transformers.

Lumbee River is based in Red Springs and has about 40,000 customers in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties.

Lumbee Lines Faulted

Odell Barefoot, the electrician who recently regrounded the Dixons' pool, said he has never received similar calls for pools in neighborhoods served by Carolina Power & Light, now Progress Energy, or Fayetteville's Public Works Commission.

''About the only trouble we have is on the Lumbee electric lines,'' he said.

Bensley said he doubts Barefoot's assertion that families in other areas don't experience the problem. He said some stray voltage is naturally occurring and that the effectiveness of a grounded pool diminishes over time.

A PWC representative to talk about the issue could not be reached Thursday.

Scott Poole is administrator for the N.C. Rural Electrification Authority, which serves as a mediator between consumers and nonprofit cooperatives such as Lumbee River. He said cooperatives around the state have told him they sometimes get complaints of stray voltage, but the problem was found to be a poorly grounded pool.

Poole said there is no national standard on how much stray voltage is acceptable. Neighbors in Arran Lakes West have been registering up to 5 volts around their pools.

Unlike larger, for-profit utilities, the state does not regulate nonprofit cooperatives. Poole said Lumbee staff members have ''the responsibility of ensuring that they are doing things correctly'' and that the staff ''is responsible to its board of directors.''

Staff writer Andrew Barksdale can be reached at barksdalea@fayettevillenc.com or 486-3565.

Mike Holt's Comment: Because of the complexity of this case, I will not respond at this time to this newspaper article. My response will be in another newsletter next week. However, I encourage my readers to visit my Stray Voltage Website in advance of my response.


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