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Squirrels often take the fall for outages

Flossing with a power line.

According to street chat among police officers, that's what zapped a squirrel one morning last week and knocked out electricity for 81 Historic Old Northeast customers.

The electricity came back on in 48 minutes, Progress Energy officials said.

The squirrel likely was out for good.

Both lore and documented cases record squirrels and other small animals as being major culprits in power failures, but perhaps not the No. 1 purveyor of darkness.

"I would say more often than not outages are storm-related," said Progress Energy's Aaron Perlut.

Old newspaper stories dump considerable blame on the bushy-tailed, tree-dwelling rodents, which travel power and telephone lines to and from canopies, attics and power transformers.

A squirrel once brought down a Cleveland airport's radar for a week. Another closed the Nasdaq stock market for 34 minutes. Others have plunged entire counties into darkness and knocked radio stations off the air.

Outages can occur when an animal completes an electrical circuit, perhaps by having its front paws on a wire and its rear paws on something that's not a wire, creating a divergent path for electricity.

The high-wire acrobatics can kill the animal and disrupt power.

"Not good for anything," said Shawn Copeland, general manager for Progress Energy's south coastal region.

Sometimes a creature's activity will cause fuses in transformers to blow, producing a report stout enough to rattle windows. The "boom" actually is the symptom of a breaker-box mechanism designed to isolate the disruption and affect fewer customers, say power company officials.

Occasionally, a squirrel will chew through a wire.

"Insulation is there to keep it from happening. It's not the most common thing, but it does happen," Copeland said.

It's a dental thing for the squirrels, wildlife experts say.

"They're a rodent and part of the natural behavior is they have to chew down their teeth so they don't get long and keep them from eating," said Jeanne Murphy, a park naturalist for the Pinellas County extension office.

Animals on power lines create a problem big enough to attract entrepreneurs.

One is Douglas Wulff, 25, who helped invent a wheel-like device that goes on either lines or poles to block animal access.

Residents of Columbia, Mo., Wulff and his father got busy about two years ago after Wulff's aunt complained about squirrels' using a cable to reach her roof and attic, where they chewed about $6,500 in damage.

A company called Critter Guard resulted.

The firm has sold about 10,000 of its beast blockers in the United States and Australia, Wulff said.

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