Birds, Squirrels, & Snakes - Oh My!

21 January 2021


You’ve probably seen snakes on a plane, well hopefully not in real life, but from the comfort of your couch or with a bucket of popcorn at the movies. But have you seen snakes on utility poles? I guess it depends where you live – maybe you’ve got snakes everywhere, but I certainly haven’t.

Anyways, it’s actually a huge problem in the electrical utility industry. Who knew? Certainly not me.

And it’s not just snakes. Squirrels, rats, raccoons, possums, and birds are all to blame. Substations are basically their jungle gyms and transformers make a safe, cozy nest. Unfortunately, things tend to turn ugly when the animals cause a phase to phase or phase to ground fault with their bodies. Cue the electrical faults, electrocution, and fire. It’s not good for either party involved.

Worse, it’s estimated that these animal-related outages cost utility companies between $15 and $18 million each year. I think it’s time we start sending out some bills to these lil rascals. Who’s with me?

The good news is that many folks not only want to protect their electrical assets, but also these little furry ones. So, substations have been trying out various solutions to prevent wildlife trespassers. It’s tricky though, since specific wildlife issues change from one region to the next. A solution for preventing rats at a substation in New York City isn’t going to work for the substation manager overwhelmed with eagles’ nests in rural Maryland. It’s also important that the solution isn’t more expensive than the actual problem itself. Plus, you’ve got to use materials that are safe for animals, but also tough, so they can outlast any weather condition.

Over the years, many have tried solutions to simply keep the animals away, but the best solution is to allow wildlife to access their beloved spot, while protecting the system and the animal. What does that look like? Well, there’s lots of options, but it typically comes down to insulating bare overhead lines, metal, and other substation equipment, or installing special fencing. If you want to learn more, we recommend downloading the whitepaper, Wildlife Induced Outages and Protection of Overhead Lines and Substations. It’s a great read.

More great news? Researchers are looking into this issue even further, especially with snakes. Although I am not a huge fan of the creepy crawlers, snakes – specifically ratsnakes – do play a big role in controlling rodent populations. And this population control ultimately prevents damage to agriculture, while limiting the spread of tick-borne diseases. Because of that, farmers (and anyone who doesn’t want Lyme’s disease) are particularly thankful.

Anyways, a research team at Virginia Tech is catching and studying ratsnakes to observe their climbing behaviors on utility poles, so they can build new devices to keep these snakes from ending up in electrical lines and transformers. Snake-fanatics – don’t panic, they’re releasing the snakes back in the wild after the team finishes recording their climbing behaviors. Plus, preventing these wildlife induced outages is a top priority for utility companies, so this study is being funded by TE Connectivity, an electrical utility components manufacturer.

Now, I hate to end on a bad note, but maybe you’ll get a good laugh too.

At the end of the day, as John Acklen of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) put it best, “It is really hard to defeat squirrels.”

While you can’t fully protect your electrical assets from rogue animals, you can still protect your transformers, cables, circuit breakers, and bushings and prevent electrical failure with insulation resistance testing.  Not sure where to start with preventative maintenance? Check out Megger’s 5, 10 and 15 kV insulation resistance testers.

Preventing snakes on utility poles is hard, but preventative maintenance? That’s easy. Especially when you download our Complete Guide to Electrical Insulation Testing.