Nearly 4,000 households lost power in Southern California this week. The culprit? A shiny balloon, utility officials say.
"We have thousands of these outages every year — it's a big problem," a spokesperson for Southern California Edison (SCE) told CBS MoneyWatch.
Beyond disrupting electric service, mylar balloons that bump into power lines can pose a public safety risk and cause enormous damage from fires and downed lines. Helium-filled balloons also can stay aloft for as long as two weeks and float for miles.
Rubber balloons have been around since the 1800s, but the first modern-day latex balloon — which was shaped like a cat's head — was sold in Massachusetts in 1931, according to the European Balloon & Party Council. Balloons made of mylar — a trademarked form of thin, non-stretchable aluminized plastic film — hit the market in the 1970s and are today a common sight at birthdays, graduations and other celebrations.
Mylar balloons have also proved to be a constant menace to utilities and fire departments. Their silvery coating serves as a conductor for electricity, which means they can short transformers and melt wires just by coming near a high-voltage line.
More than 1,000 outages
"It starts around February with Valentine's Day and peaks in May or June," the SCE spokesperson said. "We thought with virtual graduations it would level off but it didn't, as there were drive-by celebrations using just as many balloons."
The California utility recorded 80 outages in February involving balloons and 217 in June. Last year, it tallied more than 1,000 outages related to mylar balloons, including dozens of incidents involving downed power lines.
"There have been times when they make contact that there is this gigantic explosion," the SCE spokesman said, citing one such blast in July 2017 in Long Beach, not far from where utility crews were working. "The supervisor had them come down away from the area, but it could have been really dangerous."
Other utilities in California and other states also struggle with mylar balloons. In a single week in May, seven mylar balloon-related outages caused service disruptions for about 3,800 local customers, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. reported earlier this year. Over the past five years, the balloons have caused more than 500 outages in the San Diego area, according to the power company.
Mylar, or foil, balloons crossing paths with power lines caused 376 outages in Pacific Gas and Electric Company's service area last year, cutting power to more than 179,000 homes and businesses, according to PG&E. The San Francisco-based company provides energy to almost 16 million people in northern and central California.
In 2015, a mylar balloon struck a power line and sparked a blaze that burned 75 acres in California's Butte County. Two years earlier, a bouquet of metallic balloons drifted into transmission power lines in Tehama County, starting the Deer Fire, which burned more than 11,000 acres over several days.
Don't let go that balloon
"We realize many people are simply unaware of the dangers associated with releasing these foil balloons outdoors," Lisa Rouse, director of outage management at FirstEnergy, stated earlier this year.
The company blames mylar balloons for more than 200 power outages in 2018 and 2019 across its service area, which includes parts of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Mylar balloons should be flown indoors, or tethered with weights or securely tied if used outside, according to utility officials, who have issued public appeals in states from Connecticut to Texas. They and the Balloon Council, an industry trade group, also advise consumers to puncture and deflate the balloons before throwing them out.
Still, some municipalities are looking at stronger measures to curtail the damage inflicted by the floating foil. Glendale, California, for instance, is considering an ordinance that would ban the sale of mylar balloons. Releasing latex or mylar balloons into the air is also banned in some areas, including in parts of Maryland.