Damages from power surge add up for Juneau residents and city government

Bev Agler, a resident of Wickersham Avenue in Juneau, shows a surge protector that got fried at her home by the power surge on Nov. 16, 2020. She says she lost a circuit breaker, her stove, two air source heat pumps and a sewing machine. Agler says she thinks she’ll have a cold, turkey-less Thanksgiving. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Juneau’s electric utility has had an unusual run of outages and blips this month, affecting a lot of its customers.

Many residents in one neighborhood discovered dead appliances and scorched surge protectors after an outage on Veterans Day. Some of the city’s hospital equipment and water utility machinery were also damaged.

A utility spokesperson said its service is usually more reliable and chalks this rough patch up to bad luck.

In the Mountainside Estates neighborhood, resident Hayden Garrison lost a lot of appliances to the Veterans Day power outage.

“When the lights come back on, I noticed something was wrong, ‘cause all the lights weren’t coming back on,” Garrison said. “I blew nine breakers, four of the GFIs, and then found out my boiler was dead, my oven was dead, my dishwasher was dead, my propane fireplace fan motor was dead.”

But he did have power on his stoop for the blower for an inflatable holiday Minion.

Garrison said he was fortunate he was able to get a lot of repairs done that day.

“We were able to get up and running again that night, before, you know, got too dark and too cold,” he said.

The damage from home to home appears sporadic. A lot of Garrison’s neighbors reported similar damage, while others got away scot-free without any special power protection.

Up the street, Robert Trousil was working at his desk the morning of the outage.

“Oh yeah, it was like a little explosion underneath the computer at our desks,” he said. “And it turned out to be our surge protector on our computers. And it fried that and then we lost five or six light bulbs, a couple of light fixtures.”

He said the surge protector was scorched black. With a chuckle, Trousil said he wants to give it “a proper burial, because it really saved a lot of stuff.”

AELP spokesperson Debbie Driscoll said surge protectors that cover an entire home are more common in places prone to lightning strikes. But not in Juneau.

Driscoll said the Veterans Day outage was caused by an insulator failing — the bulby porcelain things on power poles. When it failed, a high-voltage transmission line fell onto another line, which caused the surge before the system cut off power.

“There is inherent risk with electricity,” Driscoll said. “Equipment damage as a result of Mother Nature, normal operations, equipment failure, as an industry standard is typically … not the utility’s liability. It’s typically the responsibility of the customer to protect their equipment.”

That said, AELP is helping to collect and forward damage reports from customers to its insurance company. But Driscoll said the insurance company’s role with AELP’s customers isn’t resolved yet — it’s not clear if folks like Hayden Garrison can expect any reimbursement.

Bartlett Regional Hospital spokesperson Katie Bausler said equipment at the city-owned hospital was also damaged. That includes 14 adjustable beds, a new ventilation system to help make indoor air at the hospital safer and a CAT scanner. Bausler said most of it has been repaired.

Jennifer Mannix is the city’s risk management officer, which includes handling property insurance claims. Mannix said some water filtration and pumping equipment was also damaged near Salmon Creek and Mountainside Estates.

“The term ‘fried’ has come up a few times,” she said. “Yeah, I think it’s more about replacing them at this point.”

The city’s property insurance policy doesn’t pick up any costs until after the first $100,000 in damages a year. The dollar value impact from this incident is still being assessed, but Mannix said they may hit that deductible.

“You know, the more I’m learning, I think we’ll probably get close to it or exceed it, yes,” she said.

Mannix said the city budgets for some losses, so the out-of-pocket costs won’t require any special action from Juneau’s elected officials.

She said she’s also been in touch with AELP’s insurance company, but like other customers, it’s unclear if it can expect any reimbursement.

Driscoll, with the electric utility, acknowledges the glut of incidents lately.

“Our system is typically more reliable than it has seemed to be in the last week and a half or two weeks,” she said. “It’s just a, for lack of a better term, a perfect storm of things coming together.”

She said there was the first heavy snow of the season, which typically brings down trees, causing issues. Then on top of that, there was an unusual ice storm, and a high wind event. Then the insulator failed.

The latest blip the utility had affected the Mendenhall Valley on Monday morning. Driscoll said a squirrel touched something it shouldn’t have, causing a momentary fault. The squirrel probably didn’t make it, but the system worked as it should, kicking power back on within a fraction of a second after the fault cleared.

Resources about power protection, including whole-home surge protection, are available on AELP’s website.