Manufacturer accepts responsibility for electrical fire
By Scott Bellile
An electric substation that went up in flames due to a voltage regulator failure back in March is operating with fresh equipment again.
New London Utilities electric line supervisor Mike Frederick said it took much of the summer to get the replacement parts, but the Douglas Street substation on the east side of New London is back on line with all necessary parts as of August.
“The cause of the problem was a faulty regulator and there was no operation error on our end. Nothing,” Frederick said. “It was just a lemon, a regulator that had a problem not due to anything we did. It was basically just a manufacturing defect.”
Steve Thompson, general manager for New London Utilities, said March’s fire did $200,000 to $300,000 worth of damage to the substation, which had been newly built and 15 months old at the time of the fire. It was the first failure in his 32 years with New London Utilities.
Eaton, the Waukesha power management company that produced the voltage regulators, accepted responsibility for the failure. The company applied a prorated warranty for rework, replaced one regulator and refurbished two more.
Eaton external communications manager Holly Mueller said due to the severity of the damage to the equipment, Eaton was not able to trace the cause of the failure.
Further discussion is needed regarding whether Eaton’s or the City of New London’s insurance will covering certain damage, Frederick said, but New London Utilities remains on good terms with Eaton.
“They took responsibility and handled things very well,” Frederick said. “They were very accommodating to taking care of the situation.”
The substation now uses flame-retardant oil, Thompson said, so in the event of another failure there will not be a fire.
On March 10 at 6:05 a.m., the New London Fire Department responded to heavy flames at the electrical substation located in the 600 block of East Douglas Street.
“When we arrived the flames were high as the transformer buildings,” New London Fire Captain Don Conat said.
Firefighters waited for New London Utilities to cut the power to the substation before extinguishing the fire. Simply pouring water on a flaming electrical substation wouldn’t have been safe, New London Fire Lieutenant Mark Wilfuer said.
“We were pretty concerned,” Wilfuer said. “It was a lot of voltage, and we weren’t going to let our guys go running in there.”
The fire was extinguished with dry chemical extinguishers, and dirt was used to contain the transformer oil, Conat said.
After cutting the power, several businesses and up to several hundred nearby homes lost power for around two hours that morning.
ThedaCare Medical Center was one business that lost electricity. CEO Bill Schmidt said an emergency generator kicked in for two-thirds of the hospital’s equipment. For the computers that weren’t connected, the staff needed to write info by hand and enter it into the computer later.
“We periodically do drills that help us prepare for something like this,” Schmidt said.
Frederick commended the firefighters’ work that morning and the utility linemen’s work in restoring the substation over the summer. Considering all the work those same linemen put into building the substation 18 months prior, he said watching it burn quickly was “hard to swallow.”