Balloons and Power Outages

A string of balloons caught in the transformers of a utility pole. Photo: Getty Images.

The dangers of metallic and latex balloons.

By Keldine Hull

From a first birthday to a 50th wedding anniversary, it’s hard to imagine any celebration without a colorful bouquet of balloons to add just the right touch of jubilance. While balloons seem virtually harmless, they can potentially wreak havoc on power lines causing outages for blocks on end. In May 2018, a runaway Mylar balloon struck a power pole resulting in a massive power outage in West Hollywood that affected 500 customers.

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Southern California Edison (SCE) Spokesman Paul Netter explains what makes power lines and balloons a potentially harmful combination.

“When a metallic balloon floats into a power line, substation or other electrical equipment, it can cause a surge of electricity that short-circuits the equipment and lead to power outages. This surge of electricity caused by the Mylar contact can sometimes produce a loud bang, followed by a disintegrated balloon and damaged electrical equipment and lines, which can cause lines to sever and fall to the ground — thus creating a serious public safety issue as well as a power outage,” Netter said. 

Both metallic and latex balloons pose a potential threat for different reasons. Netter continues,

“We discourage the release of any balloons — metallic or latex — but the biggest issue is that the metallic coating on Mylar balloons conducts electricity in a way that latex doesn’t. Latex balloons and the strings tying them together can, however, cause an outage if a bunch of them wrap around two power lines pulling them together.”

According to Netter, SCE experienced 1,128 metallic-balloon-caused power outages last year, an average of three per day.

“We typically see a spike in the outages starting in February with Valentine’s Day that peaks with June’s graduations. Unfortunately, that peak last year produced an all-time, one-month high of 206 outages in June — an average of nearly seven a day for that month,” Netter said.

Existing law prohibits the sale or distribution of a balloon constructed of electrically conductive material and filled with helium without attaching a weighted object, the identity of the manufacturer, and a warning statement. Assembly Bill 2450, approved by former Governor Jerry Brown in September of last year, requires a person who manufactures a balloon that is constructed of electrically conductive material to permanently mark each balloon with the identity of the manufacturer and a printed statement that warns the consumer about the dangerous risk of fire if the balloon comes in contact with an electrical power line.

“Metallic balloon releases are a tremendous problem because they can and do cause hundreds of unnecessary power outages, which in turn cause major inconveniences like disruptions to traffic lights, elevators, businesses and more. And, unlike latex balloons, metallic balloons can stay inflated and floating for two to three weeks, posing a hazard to electrical equipment and safety weeks after being released outside. It is very important that we keep a handle on balloons by buying and keeping them attached to a weight and never releasing them outdoor,” Netter said.

If you see a balloon in power lines or electrical equipment, Netter advises to call 9-1-1 or SCE at 1-800-611-1911 and to stay away from any downed power lines.

“We also urge people to never release balloons when they’re finished with them. You should properly and safely dispose of balloons by puncturing them or cutting them at the knot so they can never float away.” Netter said, “Though the warnings may sound serious, safety is the top priority in our secure-is-best message regarding metallic balloons.”