Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Three events — one a squirrel — led to Tampa water alert


It was more than just a squirrel.

Yes, one of the critters did gnaw Friday into a power line feeding Tampa's David L. Tippin Water Treatment Facility.

But city and Tampa Electric Co. officials say that was the first in a chain of improbable events that caused the water works to lose power, leading to an unprecedented boil-water alert in effect for 37 hours for the entire city.

"We really want to figure out what caused those additional dominoes to fall," TECO Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said. "The squirrel was the first domino, but the squirrel by himself couldn't have done this. It was a combination of factors."

On Monday, Tampa Water Department director Brad Baird outlined this sequence of events.

First, the squirrel.

Before dawn Friday, it crawled into a vertical stand pipe that shields an electrical supply line that drops down the length of a power pole to go underground to the water treatment plant.

The squirrel apparently became stuck in the pipe, and, as it tried to turn around and get out, chomped into the power supply line. About 5:30 a.m., the line shorted out, killing the squirrel and catching fire.

But a water treatment plant the size of Tampa's is required to have two power service lines from two different Tampa Electric substations. So instead of getting half its power from each, the plant began drawing all its power from the second line, while the utility dispatched seven people to fix the first line.

Trouble was, the second line was sagging about 100 yards away from the plant. (City officials said they had told the utility about the sag before Friday.) About 1:30 p.m., it sagged close to the line directly below it. Electricity arced between the two. Blue flames rose. In an instant, instead of 13,200 volts going into the plant, there were 26,400.

That surge shorted out the second line and caused a third problem. A switch that controls the treatment plant's backup power exploded and caught fire.

Typically, that switch turns on the plant's diesel-powered generators when, for example, lightning knocks out power from one or both electrical substations — something that happens two or three times a year.

While the water treatment plant has advanced surge protection, this switch was not designed to withstand a surge of twice the power it usually gets, Baird said.

Once the switch was knocked out, it took 31 minutes for water plant technicians to get the generators going on a second internal power circuit that serves the plant. During that time, water pressure in the 2,200 miles of city water mains dropped. In some spots, it dropped from 70 pounds per square inch to zero.

The city restored water pressure by 2:30 p.m. Friday, but the chance that untreated water or contaminants had leaked into the system meant that, under health department rules, the city had to advise residents to boil their water until testing showed that it was safe. After tests at 25 spots found no contamination, the city lifted the alert early Sunday.

The city's response was appropriate and what environmental regulations require, said Paul A. Chadik, an associate professor in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment at the University of Florida.

True, Chadik said, a drop in water pressure doesn't necessarily mean the water supply is compromised, but it's too important a service not to play it safe.

"If people were drinking that water, would they be harmed?" he asked. "Maybe not, but you don't want to take that chance."

City officials said it would be several days before they add up the costs of the outage, which include overtime and the expense of replacing the switch that blew and some fuses.

Tampa Electric is investigating the condition and maintenance of the lines and poles involved in Friday's problems, Jacobs said.

It is common practice for the utility to close the ends of its stand pipes with animal-excluding rubber-and-neoprene caps that act like a cork in a bottle.

In all likelihood, a cap was in place, Jacobs said, although squirrels sometimes eat away at the caps and get around them. The company cannot say for sure a cap was in place, though, largely because it could have been blasted away or burned when the squirrel touched the live wire and set the pole on fire.

Power lines are designed to sag, Jacobs said. Current moving through a line creates heat and causes it to expand and sag, though the utility had not determined what caused the second service line to sag.

Tampa Electric also is investigating the city's statements that it had reported that the second service line was sagging, but as of Monday afternoon had not found much on the matter.

Engineer and consultant Paul Amato of St. Petersburg said Friday's problems underscore the importance of inspecting, testing and maintaining all parts of critical systems.

Infrastructure built by previous generations often is not getting the testing or maintenance it now needs, said Amato, the former chief engineer for the U.S. Navy base on Guam.

"I think as Americans we're going to see a lot more of these things," he said. "It's little things and it adds up. It's got nothing to do with rodents. It's basic testing, inspection and maintenance."

Tampa Electric places a high priority on system maintenance, Jacobs said, adding that the utility "invests more than $100 million every year to inspect, improve and maintain our equipment to ensure our customers receive safe and reliable electricity every day."

>> facts

Have a claim?

City officials said Monday they have received many calls about recouping damages from businesses that had to buy bottled water or ice or lost customers as a result of Friday's boil-water alert. The city is taking that information and will refer it to its risk managers for review. For information, call (813) 274-8811.

Three events — one a squirrel — led to Tampa water alert 02/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 12:06am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Gators rally past Kentucky, streak hits 31


    LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a …

    Florida wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
  2. Pen makes it way too interesting as Rays hang on for 9-6 win


    A couple of home runs provided the news pegs of the night for the Rays, but it was more topical to talk about what nearly happened as they hung on for a 9-6 win over the Orioles.

    Lucas Duda's three-run homer in the third inning was the Rays' record-breaking 217th of the season, as well as his …

  3. An attempt to project what Rays will look like in 2018

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.

    Adeiny Hechavarria, high-fiving Lucas Duda, seems likely to be brought back.
  4. Trump fallout: Bucs' DeSean Jackson to make 'statement' Sunday


    Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson said Saturday that he will make a "statement" before today's game against the Vikings in response to President Donald Trump's comment that owners should "fire" players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) makes a catch during the first half of an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.
  5. Kriseman invites Steph Curry to St. Pete on Twitter


    Mayor Rick Kriseman is no stranger to tweaking President Donald Trump on social media.

    Mayor Rick Kriseman took to Twitter Saturday evening to wade into President Donald Trump's latest social media scuffle