A tale about loose cables and power lines

Article By : John Dunn

A memorable shock keeps this engineer on alert around derelict cables.

Back in 1962, when I was a teenager, I had a summer job as “stage electrician” at a sleep-away camp.  There was this little wood frame building, a small meeting hall of some kind, on which an outdoor speaker had been affixed. That speaker had been connected via 50 feet or so of two-wire zip cord to a public address amplifier inside that building, but there had been some kind of accident that tore the zip cord away from the speaker. I was asked if I could repair things and I said yes.

First, I disconnected the zip cord from the amplifier. I didn’t want the amplifier to be connected lest it electrify the zip cord’s copper. I thought that was a reasonable precaution.

The 50 feet of zip cord was dressed along one eave, then down and through a hole that had been drilled through a window frame. I put an aluminum ladder near the speaker, climbed up and started using a wire stripper to prepare the zip cord for reconnection.

The wire stripper had some rubber on its handles, but my fingers were touching the metal part anyway and when that stripper’s blade touched the copper wire, I got a nasty electrical shock! Fortunately, I didn’t fall off the ladder.

Figure 1 The building, ladder, and zip cord

Although I had disconnected the amplifier, I had not reckoned with an overhead power line that was maybe 20 feet above the roof. That power line was coupling enough energy into the disconnected zip cord to nail me when I came into inadvertent contact.

Working more carefully, I got the zip cord properly stripped and connected back to the speaker. I then reconnected the zip cord to the amplifier and everything worked just fine. It was a success.

Fast forward 57 years and now I’m a grandpa. I have been noticing in this neighborhood that at many locations, there are dangling lengths of utility cables being left unconnected, draping to passerby level with exposed copper. Many of them look like coaxial cable, but not all of them do. These few photographs are only a sample of the improper situations I’ve come across.

Figure 2 Just four of many derelict cables

With all that exposed and accessible copper, in proximity to overhead power lines and recalling my past experience with the zip cord, I fear for the shock hazards that these derelict cables present to passersby. The possibilities for accidental physical injury are alarming.

I have been in touch with town officials who have expressed interest in the matter. We shall see where that will lead.

John Dunn is an electronics consultant, and a graduate of The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (BSEE) and of New York University (MSEE).

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