Back in October, a few weeks after a woman was burned by an exploding manhole cover, Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty proposed a safety measure to avert further injuries:
Install vented, tethered covers that won’t blow sky-high.
On Friday, a report released by the state Board of Public Utilities advised Jersey Central Power & Light to do just that, starting with 12 covers as a test program:
Over the last several years there have been incidents of failures in manholes/vaults that have dislodged the manhole covers. This is a result of pressure building in the manhole during the electrical fault from gases generated. The cover rises off its frame to allow the pressure to be diminished. All utilities experience similar incidents in their systems. Adjustments to system design and proper maintenance may help mitigate the number of these occurrences. There are also opportunities to reduce the pressure by using vented covers which allow the gas to escape before the pressure within the manhole becomes excessive. Another alternative is to tether the cover to the frame to limit its travel if pressure becomes excessive. Research has been conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute in this area. They conclude that tether systems and vented covers work, but further research and experience are necessary. It is appropriate that JCP&L initiate a pilot project to get field experience in this area.
The utility has agreed to the pilot program, one of 25 recommendations in the 40-page report. A BPU-appointed investigator identified an “alarming litany of failures” by JCP&L to perform preventive maintenance, according to BPU President Bob Hanna.
Problems included absence of arc-proofing tape and animal-proofing of circuit-breakers, excessive fiber optic cables crowding vaults, inadequate ventilation of vaults and the continued use of oil-filled switches.
On Aug. 31, an oil-filled switch that was being restored to service after Tropical Storm Irene malfunctioned, blowing off a manhole cover at South and James streets and burning the arm of a Morris Township mom who was driving her boys to the Creamery for ice cream.
It was the latest in a long series of underground fires and explosions that finally prompted the BPU in October to hire an expert to investigate Morristown’s underground electrical system. That same month, the Mayor suggested that the BPU require JCP&L to install safety covers from a Michigan company, Swiveloc.
“Any way that we can improve safety for our residents, I’m going to push for,” the Mayor said on Friday. He thanked his wife, Mary Dougherty, for steering him to the company.
Mary said she casually mentioned the manhole explosion last summer during a conference call with her boss, who happened to know someone at Swiveloc.
The covers cost $1,400 to $1,700 apiece, the Mayor said at the time.