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City in power-surge dispute

Squirrels with an appetite for aluminum are at the heart of a dispute between Burbank officials and the owner of a home where appliances have twice been fried because of power surges caused by chomped wires.

Last month, John Buxer won a small claims case against the city for power surge damage to electronics belonging to his tenant, and he has another claim pending from a subsequent incident.

Electricians say squirrels like to sharpen their teeth on the aluminum grounding wires that run between power poles and homes. They don’t get electrocuted on the grounding wire because it does not convey electricity to the home. But when the grounding wire is severed, it can cause a surge of energy in the wire that supplies power, hence the damage to appliances.

Buxer is not as mad at the alleged perpetrator as he is at the city. Burbank officials at first denied Buxer’s claim, as did his insurer.

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So he wrote City Council members, sued the city in small claims court, filed a Public Records Act request for information about prior squirrel incidents and eventually won. But the city appealed.

In April, Buxer won the appeal before a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, prompting the city to write a check for $4,800.

“I figured they’d be really responsive, really open to if there was a real grievance from a constituent,” he said. “Their defense was: the squirrel was guilty.”

Though they declined to specifically address Buxer’s claims, Burbank officials said California law sets a high standard for liability against government agencies, and that the city does not guarantee uninterrupted power service. They also said they take quick action when animals or other problems cause outages.

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Squirrels and Mylar balloons are among the most common causes of power outages, according to reports from the utilities in Burbank and Glendale.

In January, one squirrel knocked out power to 32 Burbank customers for more than two hours when it came into contact with a feeder line on Hollywood Way. In the last two fiscal years, according to a Burbank Water & Power report, animals caused three outages, while balloons and palm fronds caused 17.

In Glendale, squirrels are among the leading causes of outages. A Glendale Water & Power report blames squirrels for 41 power failures between 2006 and 2010, 12% of the 342 reported problems. Other top causes include equipment failure, balloons, palm fronds and birds.

Buxer said squirrels have been the root of the power surge that occurred at his property at 919 N. Lincoln St. in November 2009. Burbank Water & Power workers replaced the wire, but a squirrel chewed the new line and caused another surge in April 2010, Buxer said.

In an affidavit filed in small claims court, Buxer’s tenant, Georgina Cordova, described what happened when she turned on the lights that day.

“They got really bright, they went dim and I heard pop, pop, pop in the appliances.… The outlets started sparking like they were going to set on fire,” she wrote.

Buxer filed claims for both incidents. In the 2009 matter, the city rejected the claim, saying in a letter the damage “was done by an animal chewing on the aluminum and not by any negligence on the part of the city.”

In court documents, Buxer showed that the city knew of a prior squirrel incident at the house, and attached articles and ads promoting inexpensive plastic sleeves that wrap around the bases of power poles to discourage climbing animals. Replacing aluminum wires with more durable copper also would solve the problem, he said.

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Jorge Somoano, Burbank Water & Power’s assistant general manager for electrical distribution, said the city uses animal guards as needed. Copper is also much more expensive than the more commonly used aluminum, he said.

“Aluminum has been our standard for 25 years,” Somoano said.

And while the utility can make it harder on squirrels, it cannot prevent all incidents, he added.

“You still have exposed wires or conductors,” Somoano said. “You can’t cover everything.”

The city offers customers a tree-trimming service to make it harder for animals to get onto power and telephone lines, Somoano said. Customers can also do their part by making sure electricity is safely grounded where it enters a home, he added.

Buxer said he hopes the city will simply concede the second case, which is still pending, and is amazed that the first matter took 18 months and an appeal to settle.

“The last thing I wanted to do was to take this thing to court,” he said.
 
 


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