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Electricity and floodwaters create dangerous mix

April 26, 2011

Flooding is a threat nearly every month of the year according to the National Weather Service.
Flood waters can change landscapes, and inflict great damage when they pour into homes and other buildings, submerging potential hazards.  One of those hazards is the potential for electrocution both indoors and outside.  Ground water in contact with downed power lines and electric equipment can energize the surrounding area for great distances. And when floodwaters in homes and buildings cover outlets or electrical appliances that are plugged in, current can also flow through the water with tragic consequences for anyone who ventures into it.
Flood waters can provide the path to ground for errant electrical current, and wading into a flooded basement can result in tragedy.  Homeowners have been electrocuted while plugging in a water pump in a flooded basement, following heavy rainstorms and using a power device to open a basement drain while standing in water.
Iowa’s electric cooperative strongly recommends the addition of ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI’s) on circuits where water or dampness may be present. Take these precautions to stay safe:
Never attempt to turn off power at the breaker box if you must stand in water to do so. If you can’t reach your breaker box safely, call your electric utility to shut off power at the meter.
Never use electric appliances or touch electric wires, switches or fuses when you’re wet or when you’re standing in water.
Keep electric tools and equipment at least 10 feet away from wet surfaces. Do not use electric yard tools if it’s raining or the ground is wet.
If an electrical appliance has been in contact with water, have a professional check it out before it is used. It may need to be repaired or replaced.
“Stay away from downed power lines and warn others to stay away,” says Molly Hall, Executive Director of the Energy Education Council. “If the line is energized, so is any water in the area”
That warning is illustrated by the tragic electrocution death of four pedestrians when a power line dropped near them and electric current spread through the six inch deep water in which they were wading.  Current radiates outward from the source of the electricity and travels unknown distances.
Even if downed wires have been de-energized, they remain a potential danger as power to the system is restored, or standby generators are improperly used and backfeed electricity into the wires.  “Improper use of generators sends power back through the electric meter onto the utility system,” Hall says. “As it travels back through the transformer, electricity voltage greatly increases, posing a deadly hazard to anyone near the lines, including utility crews working to restore power.”
More information on flood and generator safety, as well as videos and other resources are available at www.SafeElectricity.org .

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