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Power's on, but the work has just begun

Chuck Pruett aims the handheld infrared camera at his target: row after row of power lines. Methodically and patiently, he traverses the high-voltage lines, snapping digital images of potential trouble spots.

The heat from the afternoon sun is unrelenting, but Pruett has an important task to accomplish at this Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative substation in Spring Hill. He is looking for loose or improper connections that may have resulted during stormy weather from Frances or the subsequent cleanup.

After being without power for up to a week after the storm, customers got cranky. The last thing the power company needs now are outages it could have prevented with proactive maintenance.

"I'm the guy who looks for problems before we have problems," said Pruett, whose next stops will include Wesley Chapel and Crystal River.

Area power companies finished turning the lights back on a week ago, but their post-Frances work in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties is far from complete.

Part 1 was the restoration of electricity. Part 2 is the less urgent _ but still important _ job of inspecting those patched-up connections and scouring lines for vegetation that could pose a threat during future high winds.

Each power company has its own strategy for handling the tasks.

Last week, Withlacoochee River Electric sent Pruett, the company's engineering technician who handles the infrared technology, out on what will be a weeks-long project. Using a $56,000 digital camera, he will travel across the utility's service area _ which includes much of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties _ to study the connections at each substation and power pole.

Loose connections generate more heat, and these "hot spots" show up on infrared images as a different color than the secure connections. When he eyes one, Pruett e-mails the picture to that line's supervisor so it can be fixed before an outage occurs.

He does this work all year. However, the 200 to 300 inspections a day take on particular importance now because many of the repairs after the storm were done in less than ideal conditions, said Withlacoochee River Electric spokesman Ernie Holzhauer.

"We're still making temporary work solid," said Holzhauer, who in his 34 years with the company has never seen the magnitude of damage experienced locally with Frances.

"It's important we find that now so in the next heavy weather, possibly we can avoid some of the outages," he said.

Progress Energy Florida, which also serves all three counties, isn't planning any storm-specific use of its infrared technology, which is part of the company's regular maintenance program throughout the year, said spokesman Garrick Francis.

But starting last Monday, Progress Energy crews focused on another significant part of storm cleanup: trees.

Crews did a lot of tree trimming and removal as part of their restoration effort, Francis said, but didn't always take the debris they cut with them. So workers are returning to communities to pick up the debris and see if any other trees need to be cut or pruned.

The work should take another week, according to Francis.

"We want to make sure (customers) know we're going to come back and get it," he said.

Cutting and pruning trees is a tricky issue for electric companies. Downed trees or tree limbs cause the majority of outages during storms. That was particularly true during Frances, said Tampa Electric Co. spokesman Ross Bannister.

"It was a huge tree event," said Bannister, whose company has about 25,000 customers in Pasco County. "More than 90 percent of the damage to our distribution system was the result of trees. Frances damaged our equipment almost by proxy."

Companies are required by state law to ensure their lines are free from anything that could cause an outage or threaten public safety during a storm. Residents, however, do not like to see their lush foliage disappear at the hands of power crews.

Some do not realize the companies have legal rights of way over the space their lines run through, giving them authority to cut tree limbs in the easements even if the trees stand on private property.

Spokespersons for area power companies said the companies were not planning any significant cutting in response to Frances, despite calls from officials such as Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who last week said Tampa Electric needs a more aggressive tree-trimming effort.

The companies said they already spend millions each year on their regular maintenance programs. They aim to strike a balance between maintaining their rights of way and respecting property owners' wishes.

But crews are on the lookout for leaning or downed trees in the rights of way as a result of Frances. During their damage assessments immediately after storm, Tampa Electric crews noticed some areas that required additional trimming, Bannister said.

"We might shift our priorities a little bit, move some (areas) up or some down, as a result of this," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or cjenkinssptimes.com.

HOT TECHNOLOGY

An infrared photograph taken with a digital camera reveals two yellowish "hot spots" _ indicators of loose connections _ on Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative power lines. The temperature at the bad connection along the line at lower left is measured at 144.7 degrees; the one near the top of the pole is 138.2 degrees. Utility crews use pictures like these to identify potential problems and make repairs before the power goes out.

Engineering technician Chuck Pruett checks for trouble spots along 14,000-volt lines at a substation near Spring Hill Drive on Thursday. The substation serves 12,000 homes in Spring Hill.

The $56,000 camera Chuck Pruett uses lets him e-mail images to the line supervisors who assign repair crews. Fixing loose connections means outages are less likely during the next storm. "I'm the guy who looks for problems before we have problems," he says.

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