Debunking myths about electricity

When it comes to electricity, what you don’t know can kill you. Unfortunately, sometimes we think we’ve got the facts when what we really know are popular myths perpetuated by social media, movie exaggerations and unreliable sources. 

“That old saying ‘knowledge is power’ is very true, especially when electric power is involved,” said John Gasstrom, CEO of Indiana Electric Cooperatives. “That’s why we take every opportunity we can to educate our consumers, young people and other folks in the community about electric safety.”

One myth that could be particularly dangerous this time of year is the one suggesting that when a power line falls on the ground, it automatically becomes dead. “You should always stay away, 30 feet or so, even if you don’t see sparks,” Gasstrom said. “Assume a downed line is a live line.” Call your electric cooperative or 911 immediately when you see a downed line so trained personnel can take care of the problem. 

Along that same line: If you’re in a car that strikes a utility pole, stay in the car, call 911 and wait until the utility workers tell you it’s safe. Dropped power lines are hard to see, especially at dusk or at night. Stepping from your car may create a path to ground for electricity or you may walk into a fallen line and be electrocuted.

Among other electricity myths:

Myth: Rubber gloves and rubber shoes protect you from electricity. 

Truth: That’s true only if they are 100 percent pure rubber with no holes or tears (the kind that electric lineworkers wear and are regularly inspected). The gloves a lineman wears are laboratory tested to withstand 20,000 volts.
Typical cleaning gloves and shoes, which are made with rubber mixed with cheaper materials, aren’t going to protect you in an electrical encounter. 

Myth: All power lines are insulated.

Truth: As a rule, power lines aren’t insulated. So, how come birds don’t get electrocuted when they perch on a power line? They don’t provide a path to the ground for electricity flow. If a bird were to touch two wires at once, or a wire and the ground, it would be electrocuted. 

Myth: Power lines outside carry the same 120-volt electricity we use in our homes.

Truth: Here in Indiana, most power lines carry 7,200 volts. Some carry up to 19,000 volts. You can’t tell the voltage by just looking at it.  

Three mistruths about electricity

Power lines are insulated.

NOT TRUE: At least 90% of them are NOT insulated. Ones that might have been insulated could have lost insulation as a result of years of being exposed to the sun and weather. 

If a power line is not high voltage, it’s safe.

NOT TRUE: Despite what you may hear, voltage won’t kill you, amperage will. Just 1 amp will cause fatal heart irregularities. Between 100 and 200 amps run through an average house. 

A live wire will always spark when it fails.

NOT TRUE: Sometimes, but not always. When the line makes firm contact, it will spark. If it doesn’t make firm contact, it won’t … but it could still be carrying its electrical charge and kill you. 

Easy tips for outdoor safety

  • Winter travel increases your chances of encountering a downed power line. If you see one, don’t drive over it or try to move it. Don’t touch anything with which it may be in contact. Instead, stay in your car and call your electric cooperative or 911. 
  • If your car hits a utility pole, stay in your car and call your electric cooperative or 911. Even if you don’t see power lines on your car, wait until electric utility workers tell you it’s safe to get out. Dropped power lines are hard to see, especially in the dark. Stepping from your car may create a path to ground for electricity or you may walk into a fallen line and be electrocuted.
  • ONLY if staying in the car puts you in immediate danger, such as if the car catches on fire, should you try to exit. Then, jump clear of the car with both feet together as far as you can. Do not touch the car (which may be energized) and the ground at the same time. Do not touch the car to regain your balance. Keep both feet together as you shuffle or bunny hop at least 30 feet away from the accident. Do not go back near the car for any reason.
  • Putting up outdoor holiday decorations? Always look up and around before raising a ladder and keep it 10 to 20 feet away from any overhead power lines.