By Melanie Addington/The Oxford Eagle
OXFORD — It seems to happen more often these days. The lights in your house flicker momentarily and you have to reset your clocks yet again.
What you may not know is that in that instant, a squirrel may have just lost its life by getting a powerful electric shock.
Squirrels use light poles as they move from one place to another, but they’re unintentionally becoming more of a problem to the Oxford Electric Department. While these brief power outages are usually just a minor inconvenience to power customers, they’re causing damage to the community’s power system and forcing the city to make costly repairs.
“It truly is a problem. They are more feisty this time of year and moving around more,” said Oxford Electric Department Superintendent Lynn Robbins.
Robbins said when the lights flicker and it’s not a stormy day, the first thing he thinks of is that another squirrel has hit the lines.
“On average we find about one dead squirrel a week,” Robbins said. “The ones that you find may not cause a long-term outage. The lights may just blink.”
Robbins said while squirrels have always been a problem, their numbers seem to be increasing.
“In addition to the loss of service and inconvenience for the customer, we do lose sales on it,” he said. “But most of the cost is in the repair. It can take up to $3,000 or $4,000 in damage on that one pole.”
Average losses due to squirrels are up to $10,000 to $15,000 a year in Oxford and more than half the outages each year are caused by squirrels.
Sometimes squirrels get caught on the line or electrocuted on top of a transformer, and in those cases, the power outage can be lengthier. Every four or five months, a squirrel gets into the line and causes a major power outage.
Squirrels are classified as rodents, and these rodents appear to be multiplying.
“The squirrels you are dealing with are gray squirrels,” said Scott Baker, a biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “They are the most common squirrels in Mississippi. We have no population estimates for them, but they are abundant, especially in cities and towns.”
Squirrels cause problems across the country with electric poles and to combat these furry trouble makers, electric departments like Oxford’s have installed “squirrel guards” on poles to help protect its lines.
“It is a large piece of plastic that we put on the pole to further insulate between the energized and unenergized portion so the squirrel can not get across it,” Robbins said. “Any time we have squirrel damage, we install it and on the transformer also.”
Due to the length of squirrels, they cause more damage than birds, who are able to hop across energized and unenergized portions of the line.
“Because of their length and agility they can cross a span of 18 to 20 inches physically,” Robbins said. “They touch the energized portion with their tail or feet, while their front legs are on the grounded portion and it creates an arc which causes the power outage.”