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Regulatory History of Contact Voltage

Much of the analysis of the dramatic threat of contact voltage and of the best practices for addressing and resolving the potential danger, have already been developed by comprehensive proceedings in other jurisdictions, including, in particular, New York. 

After a young woman died from a contact voltage incident in 2004 in New York City, the New York State Public Service Commission (NYS PSC) conducted an extensive review of issues related to contact voltage hazards, also called “stray voltage,” with a particular attention to the City of New York, and soon mandated, statewide, both shock incident reporting and contact voltage detection, repair, and reporting.    Since that time, the NYS PSC has regularly investigated and learned more about contact voltage – its causes, and the most efficient and cost-effective means for detection.  The NYS PSC itself required rigorous testing of contact voltage detection equipment.  As a consequence, the NYS PSC continuously reviews its electric safety standards, and has issued a series of orders reflecting that knowledge and experience to best protect the public safety of pedestrians in New York’s cities.

Specifically, on February 11, 2004, in Case 04-M-0159, the NYS PSC directed Con Edison to test all of its assets for contact voltage and report on the findings.  By an Order dated January 5, 2005, the NYS PSC instituted Electric Safety Standards for this problem, and required annual testing, prompt mitigation, and comprehensive reporting.  By a subsequent Order dated December 15, 2008, in Cases 04-M-0159 and 06-M-1467, that Commission recognized the experiences gathered and modified its requirements to mandate contact voltage mobile detection programs where applicable – cities with underground electric distribution systems.  The initial focus on the streets of the City of New York was broadened to include surveys of major cities throughout the State of New York, as it became clear that the risk of a contact voltage incident is present wherever there is an underground electric distribution system and high concentrations of pedestrian traffic.  The number of contact voltage mobile scans per year for the City of New York mandated by the NYS PSC increased, as the developing data and experience confirmed that even a well-conducted survey and mitigation effort did not produce a permanent solution to the ongoing problem of contact voltage hazards. Currently, the NYS PSC mandates 12 contact voltage mobile scans per year of the public streets in New York City. Cases 04-M-0159, 06-M-467 and 10-E-0271.

The experience in the State of New York shows: that by proactively, rigorously and repeatedly addressing contact voltage as a public safety issue, the public has been protected; and that since detection and shock reporting has been required, reported shocks have been reduced significantly.  The New York experience also shows that the available mobile detection technology has been proven to be the most effective and efficient; and that a component of the reliability of the electric distribution system has been addressed by the early identification and repair of electric faults which could have grown into more serious and wide-reaching failures in the future. A contact voltage detection program (detection, repair, and shock reporting) protects the public from shocks and electrocutions, and also contributes to the reliability of the electric distribution system.

In particular, the NYS PSC through its almost 7 years of rigorous regulatory processes, including utility reporting, NYS PSC staff analyses, etc. has found: 

  • “In urban areas exclusively comprised of underground distribution systems, the technology [mobile detection] is clearly more efficient in identifying potentially hazardous conditions…” Case 04-M-0159, Order dated 12/15/2008
  • “…recognizing the experience of Con Edison, we believe the other utilities also must employ the technology [mobile detection] in specific areas of their systems where the mobile survey is effective.” Case 04-M-0159, Order dated 12/15/2008
  • “The requirements of the Electric Safety Standards have resulted in the identification of locations with sizable stray [contact] voltage levels where mitigation was necessary to maintain public safety.  The standards remain an effective means to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the electric system… Based on the results observed to date, stray [contact] voltage testing is needed to continue to identify potentially unsafe conditions.” Case 04-E-0273 – 2009 Compliance Report on Stray Voltage Testing and Inspections as Required by the Electric Safety Standards., NYS PSC Office of Electric, Gas, and Water Report, dated 6/04/2010.
  • “The requirements have also resulted in the identification of numerous substandard conditions on the state’s electric facilities.”  Case 04-E-0273 – 2009 Compliance Report on Stray Voltage Testing and Inspections as Required by the Electric Safety Standards, NYS PSC Office of Electric, Gas, and Water Report, dated 6/04/2010.

It has become increasingly clear that the public safety hazard of contact voltage can be addressed by well-established and proven contact voltage mobile detection; good mitigation and repair practices; and, shock reporting.  Standards adopted in such jurisdictions as the State of New York has shown over time that the potential of contact voltage incidents can be more clearly identified and effectively mitigated by use of reasonable programs to report shock incidents, and to detect and resolve voltage dangers in urban areas with underground electric distribution systems.  The rules, rulings and Orders of the NYS PSC have gradually refined and improved the appropriate standards to be applied. (NYS PSC Case Nos. 04-M-0159, 06-M-1467, 10-E-271) In its Press Release of June 17, 2010, the NYS PSC stated, “These standards were established by the Commission to help ensure the safety of the public from stray voltage and to enhance the reliability of the electric system in the State of New York.”  The Chair of the NYS PSC, Garry Brown, was quoted specifically to state, “Electric safety standards remain an effective means to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the electric system.” NYS PSC, Press Release 10059/10-E-0271, dated 6/17/10).