As wind topples a tree, snapping a wire and severing electricity to homes, a machine that PPL workers call Viper can start working to restore power automatically.
Vipers, or vacuum reclosers, are part of the smart grid that PPL is installing in its 29-county territory to reduce the number of power outages and shorten the duration of those that do occur.
In 2011, PPL began installing 50 Vipers and automated control boxes on lines serving 60,000 people in the Harrisburg area.
The equipment has improved reliability by 30 percent, said Melinda Stumpf, a community relations coordinator for PPL.
In each of the next five years, the company plans to install 800 Vipers and controls, concentrating on lines that historically went down during storms.
On Thursday, scores of Vipers sat outside PPL's maintenance center in the Humboldt Industrial Park near Hazleton. A few more awaited delivery on the back of a truck.
PPL and its contractors hope to install them all by May.
A four-person crew typically can hook up one Viper and control box a day.
Without the new equipment, workers from PPL had to drive to where the outages occurred, which could take minutes to hours. Then, they could operate switches, which would restore power to some customers, before they made repairs to turn the lights back on for the remaining customers.
The new machines, however, can activate the switches automatically.
"The majority of customers on that outage would be back up in one to two minutes, and then our crews would go make the repair (for) the rest of the customers," Stumpf said.
James Akins set up a Viper and controls inside the shop at Humboldt, where he is a foreman, to show how the system works.
He pointed to a light that would go off if an overload develops in a line. A radio would signal PPL's control center in Allentown.
From there, controllers can send signals to back feed electricity to some of the customers hit by an outage.
"One signal in, and you're good to go," Akins said.
Stumpf said PPL will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the smart grid.
When installing the devices in the Harrisburg area, PPL received a $38 million federal grant.
PPL also is trimming more trees near wires, installing guards to block squirrels and other animals from causing outages and installing stronger poles and lines.
"We at PPL are really dedicated to improving our system, our reliability," Stumpf said.
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