LADWP Says Large Construction Projects Strain Local Power Service

Deconstruction of the former Bank of America building on the southwest corner of Wilshire and La Brea, panorama photo taken in 2015 by Joe F. Lombard

At the March 4 meeting of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, Michael Ventre, from the LADWP’s Communications, Media & Community Affairs Office, and Art Johnson, an electrical services manager, talked to neighbors about local infrastracture issues. During the discussion, Johnson told residents that large infrastructure projects like Metro’s Purple Line Extension construction, as well as large mixed-use developments, are straining the utility’s capacity and, at times, contributing to power outages in our neighborhoods…both because of the demand on DWP staff to keep things running, and the aging infrastructure.

This account of the meeting was provided to the Buzz by Conrad Starr, president of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association. Starr also serves as Transportation Chair, Renters Rep, and Resilience Liaison for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. This is his first contribution to the Buzz.


The Nextdoor.com post read, “More power outages in Miracle Mile East… Anyone know what the problem is?” 

Once commenter theorized, “Could be all the work underground on the subway.” 

Another observed, “These new apartment buildings… put additional stress on what is already over stressed infrastructure.”

Another poster pushed back: “Theories that new developments and the subway are causing the outages are idiotic… Our electricity systems are breaking because they are old and the rains [sic] getting in.” 

It was February 15th.  By that time, the Mid-City area from Miracle Mile to Brookside and down to Longwood had racked up at least 8 power outages.  Community members gravitated to Nextdoor, the “social network for neighborhoods,” for information and emotional support. 

But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) was largely absent from the platform.  The Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association (SSNA), representing the area between the Miracle Mile and Brookside, reached out to Michael Ventre, an LADWP Community Affairs representative, for answers…which he brought to the March 4th 2019 monthly meeting of the SSNA, and which attracted a handful of area residents to the Numero Uno at Wilshire and Citrus.

Before addressing the ways LADWP communicates outage updates with the community, Ventre asked colleague Art Johnson, an electrical services manager with 33 years’ experience, to let the community know why power had gone out in 5 of the 6 previous months:

Johnson compared a list of outages compiled by the SSNA using data from Nextdoor against his DWP records, and confirmed they matched up.

The oldest outage, October 8th of last year, affected more than 27,000 customers, Johnson told the group, and was caused by an attempted copper wire theft, which unfortunately led not only to the outage, but to the electrocution of the perpetrator.  Ventre added that these thefts are not uncommon.

Moving through the list, Johnson explained that the November 29th outage was due a 4.8 kV wire being “compromised” by severe winds.  (A peek at page 2 of LADWP’s 2018 Power Infrastructure Plan provides a sense of how the 4.8kV wire comes directly out from a Distribution Station and connects either directly to a mid-sized building or is scaled down to 240/120 V for smaller residential customers.)

Speaking of winds, a question was posed about palm fronds – was it true they cause outages?  Johnson said it’s true – not only do they mimic a sail to travel long distances, they act like a hook and latch onto power lines;  either from rain or morning dew, a wet frond can short out the system, just like the mylar balloon that took out Dodger Stadium last July.

Johnson explained that most subsequent outages were rain related and provided specifics on infrastructural challenges.

On December 6th, hours into a rain event, power went out around 1am and wasn’t restored for more than 12 hours.  This incident involved an underground vault and a failed piece of cable on a pole.  Johnson elaborated: underground cables carry power to the conduit, then to the power pole and on to the wires.  During wet weather, moisture barrier joints can go bad.  In this case, a 50 to 60-year-old insulated electrical terminal called a pothead (with a projected lifespan of 50 to 100 years) had failed.

He explained that during repairs, crews protect against electrocution by cutting power before working on underground cables.  He added that the time-to-restoration depends on multiple factors, including the extent of the damage and available resources.

During this storm, there were a high volume of reported outages.

Just a week and a half later, December 16th brought a 4 1/2-hour outage which Johnson said was associated with a “Level 1 rain event” – major rain.  DWP was overwhelmed, he said, and they called in crews from “the district.”

Two days later, electricity was out again when a power station “locked out” – Johnson explained that it’s akin to a circuit breaker tripping.  Also called a “circuit level outage,” it requires a diagnosing team to “patrol the circuit” in the field.   In these cases, the community can help, by calling in outages to help determine the location and extent of an outage.  Someday, smart meters will provide LADWP real-time power data down to the individual customer, but that’s still down the road.

For now, if one customer calls, the ticket lands on the “petties” list, with a lower priority.  With multiple calls, it moves up.

Locating the source of a circuit level outage requires crews to move through the switching points, opening the first one, switching out (shutting off) power, attaching a meter to determine the direction of the problem, disconnecting, and switch power back on.  The process repeats along the switching points, until the problem hardware is located.

Johnson continued down the list:

In February, each of the three outages involved stormwater entering underground vaults and cables from the 1930s and 40s.  He added that there were jobs already “written” to replace some of this old infrastructure, only crews didn’t get there in time to prevent outages.

On February 6th, a 40 to 50-year-old transformer switch failed.  To diagnose the problem, crews “switched in and switched out” (as described above), meaning up to 10 hours of intermittent outages depending on the neighborhood.  (A resident on the 800 block of South Orange Drive posted to Nextdoor: “4th time this evening.”)

On February 14th and 15th, it was a “fault in the vault” at the Longwood Distribution Station, DS8, at 4858 San Vicente Blvd.  Johnson brought a photo printout of thick, mangled cables (like the lead cable DWP’s chief operating officer, Marty Adams, had displayed at the August meeting of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council in response to July’s “Heat Storm” outages that extended through the city).

Here, a lead cable melted, damaging adjacent cables.  During diagnosis and the repair process, power was intermittent over about 20 hours.

Johnson was asked if infrastructure maintenance jobs compete for priority the queue with new construction projects.   

They do.  He said they are “swamped” with new business, from high-rises to Metro construction to permits for sky cranes (a major user of electricity). 

Metro rail construction has a significant impact on their workload.  They “have to take care of that” as a priority. 

Nevertheless, even with the “business people screaming,” Johnson assured the group that DWP is dedicated to maintenance projects and that they continue to allocate assets, but there is only so much they can do at a time. 

He repeated that where recent outages were due to infrastructure failures, “these jobs were in the queue.” Of the 3 written jobs for DS8 on San Vicente, only one had been completed (in February, in response to the outage).  The other jobs may result in future issues, including outages.  It’s “coming home to roost,” he told the group.

LADWP Communications

The SSNA meeting was the result of an email string between the SSNA and DWP’s Communications, Media & Community Affairs team, starting in December. Recognizing the comprehensive posts they’d made to Nextdoor during July’s Heat Storm, why were they not on it more during the winter outages?  (They’ve stepped it up a bit since January.)

Ventre explained to the group, “We get information out as quickly as possible.”   He noted they can only give out the information they have, which comes from the field.  Crews communicate what they need in order to fix a problem, it can take considerable time to get a restoration time estimate. 

He encouraged the public to report outages by calling 1-800-DIAL-DWP.  Customers can also follow LADWP on Facebook.  On Twitter, customers can connect with LADWP staff about specific outages.  LADWP staff also provides certain outage information via Twitter.  Their handle is @LADWP, and the link, https://twitter.com/i/notifications, “will take you to the Notifications page. If you ever experience an outage, go here and post.”

SSNA member Michael Schlesinger, who moved into his home on South Orange Drive in 2004, expressed frustration at the lack of proactive communication by DWP.  Another neighbor commented that Twitter may not be the platform our neighbors are most comfortable with.  I noted that other City departments currently use Nextdoor effectively for communications.

Ventre said he would bring the comments back to his team, but that until the smart meters are installed, the best bet is still to get them on the phone at 1-800-DIAL-DWP. 

They also monitor Twitter 24/7, though less so after hours and on weekends.  Ventre added that the www.ladwp.com includes a map of outages linked from the homepage.

Lori Nakama lives in the Sycamore Ave. 4-plex that her parents bought more than 50 years ago.  “I’m grateful LADWP sent representatives and were open to listening to the group,” she said,”[but] felt like they were explaining it away as ‘your properties and neighborhood are old, we have too much work and have to concentrate on the Metro and new developments and not enough people to cover [the workload].’”

She added, “It’s only been since the new developments, the Purple Line, the strip mall… that our water pressure is not consistent, [in addition to] water main breaks, gas leaks, gas shut-off and power outages.”

Schlesinger said he was struck by “their complete lack of necessary resources for proactive repair work to help prevent these kinds of outages…which leaves them in a vulnerable reactive mode given any unusual circumstances, such as severe weather conditions, theft, etc.”

He added, “Basically, we can expect more of the same in the future.”

Looking back at the Nextdoor string from February 15th, all three commenters were partially right: yes, the power outages are because the infrastructure is breaking due to age (and all that rain).  And yes, the outages are affected by new construction and the Metro work – not necessarily because of the current they draw, but because of the manpower required to keep them humming.

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