As winter frays wires, pedestrians wary of ‘stray voltage’

stray voltage
Lauren Bahr walks her friend’s dog, Zeida, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Dogs are vulnerable to “stray voltage” on the city’s metal grates in winter months.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

Earlier this month, Meghan Serrano was taking her 48-pound border collie mix, Georgie-Girl, for a morning walk on Second Avenue in the East Village when the dog let out a horrible sound.

“All of a sudden she jumped and screamed and fell down,” Serrano said. “When she got up, she was limping and I had to carry her home.”

Georgie-Girl had been unfortunate enough to come into contact with a phenomenon known as stray voltage, or Con Edison’s preferred term, “contact voltage.” It occurs when poorly insulated cables leak power and electrify nearby objects — street signs, manhole covers, metal legs of park benches — and sometimes passersby and pooches in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Last week, an entire Chelsea block was shut down for several hours because of stray voltage. Earlier this month, an 11-year-old pit bull named Bella died after being electrocuted by a stray wire on the Lower East Side.

2nd Ave btwn 9 and 10 - Feb 2 2014
This image was taken about an hour after Con Edison confirmed the electrified sidewalk that shocked Meghan Serrano’s dog.
Credit: Meghan Serrano

Though Georgie-Girl suffered no lasting damage, two other dogs had been shocked by the time Serrano was able to contact Con Edison, which sent a crew to block off the site. A repairman told her that her dog had been shocked by 29 watts of voltage caused by improperly grounded scaffolding at a nearby construction site.

“The number of reported shocks tends to climb whenever we have winters with a lot of snow and ice like we did this year,” Con Edison spokesman Allan Drury said. “The reason is that the salt mixes with the snow and ice and corrodes the cables, and also conducts electricity.”

In an effort to combat shocks from contact voltage before they occur, the energy company keeps a fleet of trucks that roam the city at night with a sensor capable of detecting potentially dangerous voltage leaks.

Trucks roam the streets of New York with a sensor designed to detect stray voltage.
Credit: Con Edison

“And when the truck gets a hit, we will stop and locate what is energized,” Drury said. “First, what we do is guard the area until a crew can get there to make repairs. We will guard the area even if it’s not coming from our equipment — for instance, street lights, which are owned by DLV.”

The trucks cover about 60,000 miles a year. In 2013, the energy company received 23 reports of shocks from Con Edison equipment, an 89 percent decrease from 2004, when the program started.

Still, New Yorkers should be on the lookout for cones and caution tape on the streets, which may be a sign that contact voltage has been detected.

Meanwhile, Serrano and Georgie-Girl will be navigating more carefully around the city — at least until the weather improves.

“We definitely avoid any scaffolding now,” Serrano said.

Follow Emily Johnson on Twitter @emilyjreports


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