The 2015 Arizona monsoon season has been merciless, and it’s not over yet. Dark clouds roll in, with sparks of heat lightning that fill the skies.
Hurricane-strength winds topple large trees, damage infrastructure and create microbursts that destroy front yards and leave neighborhoods with days of cleanup. Overall, the 2015 storm season has been one of the most damaging for APS in recent years.
Five powerful storms within the past three weeks have hammered the Phoenix metro area. Those storms, with winds upwards of 90 mph, have caused damage since late August, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity and knocking down 485 power poles — an 81 percent increase from 2014.
“We track the weather on a daily basis, so we know what’s rolling in and can prepare our employees to mobilize quickly if a storm hits,” said Ted Geisler, Director of Transmission Operations and Maintenance for APS. “There have been several occasions this summer when I’ve walked out of our building in downtown Phoenix and it felt like walking into a hurricane. The winds were unbelievably strong; we knew immediately that our crews would be faced with the challenging task of rebuilding parts of our system.”
On August 27, more than 50 poles were destroyed in the West Valley. Three days later, on August 30, another powerful storm blew in the same general area and knocked down another 50 poles. On August 31, 145 poles were claimed by a powerful storm in Central Phoenix.
Wood poles snapped in half like toothpicks; steel poles with 19-inch diameters were bent in half. The devastating winds continued during this most recent storm on September 14, bringing 12 poles down at Indian School and 16th Street — with pole after pole lying in a canal and across the intersection.
“In 2014, we lost 268 poles due to storm conditions. This year, that number is already up to 485, and the season isn’t over yet,” said Geisler. “We’ve been managing Arizona monsoon season for more than 125 years. Each season brings its own set of challenges. This year, 2015 has been the summer of wind.”
With each storm, the majority of customers were restored within 24 hours. Preparing for summer storms is something APS does all year; crews continually train to be able to face any issue in the field, and equipment and supplies must be maintained and readily accessible. APS first responders are ready to replace power poles, wire, transformers and other equipment, as needed, to restore power.
In the most recent J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey, APS ranks 2nd overall in power quality and reliability.
“We know how inconvenient and uncomfortable a service disruption can be — especially during an Arizona summer when temperatures rarely dip below 100 degrees,” said Geisler. “Our goal is to keep the lights on. Our linemen, construction and vegetation management crews work around the clock — including through the night — to restore power when these powerful monsoons strike. Our commitment to public service is something we take very seriously, and we want our customers to know that when the lights go out, we’re working to restore power and make our system whole.”
Power pole inspection and replacement happens year-round. APS inspects 33,000 poles each year to check for damage or weakening areas of the grid. These pole inspections occur in addition to line inspections; APS inspects every line in its system every year. During these inspections, about 1 to 2 percent of the poles are proactively replaced to ensure customers continue to receive the reliable electricity they have come to expect from APS. A typical pole has a life of 35 to 40 years, and APS currently has more than 420,000 poles throughout its system. The total number of poles that APS has replaced this summer — including poles destroyed by storms — is more than 2,600.
When poles are replaced, APS takes every opportunity to harden the grid by replacing wood poles with steel. The placement of a wood pole versus a steel pole is highly dependent on the location and soil condition. For example, if a pole is in an area that is not easily accessible by bucket truck, a wood pole is required so that linemen can perform needed work on the pole by climbing it (since you can’t climb steel poles).
APS, Arizona’s largest and longest-serving electricity utility, serves nearly 1.2 million customers in 11 of the state’s 15 counties.