Pre-War Insulators Plague ComEd

Thatís Pre-World War II

LCG, Aug. 24, 1999--Commonwealth Edison Co. said yesterday that it had stepped up systemwide inspections and repairs of its aging underground electricity distribution systems in Chicago in an effort to put an end to repeated outages that plunge parts of the Windy City into darkness almost daily.

Yesterday, the utility said outside engineering experts had helped it identify 48 transmission lines requiring immediate inspection based on outage history, degraded physical condition and the possibility that they may have Bakelite insulated joints. ComEd said Bakelite was a popular insulator in the years following World War II.

Itís older than that. In the mid-1930s, we were about five years old and, though we had not yet entered school, we could read. We had a bright red plastic Mickey Mouse drinking cup and there were some new words to learn, cast into the bottom of the cup. "Beetleware" was one of them, and "Bakelite" was another. Our sister had a blue Shirley Temple drinking cup that was made of glass and outlasted our Beetleware Mickey.

Obsolete is what Bakelite insulators became in the years following World War II, and utilities around the country replaced them with more modern materials in the 1960s. The Chicago Tribune said in a story in this morningís edition that ComEd started to replace their Bakelite insulators at that time, but then apparently abandoned the program.

The paper reported that ComEdís Senior Vice President David Helwig, the official in charge of putting the utilityís Chicago infrastructure back in order, said that engineers from California led ComEd engineers to begin looking for Bakelite collars in cable joints that were failing. The industry had quit using Bakelite about 40 years ago because the material was not staying watertight.

Helwig said "It does appear that there was some knowledge of this during the 1960s at ComEd and some effort was made to replace (the collars), but that was not brought to completion." It was apparently the failure of the Beetleware collars on cables outside the Jefferson Substation that led to the power outage that put downtown Chicago out of business for 11 hours on August 12.

It now appears that those ancient collars could be protecting about 220 joints in 25 of the companyís underground distribution cables, and Helwig said it could take weeks to find them all.

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Written Saturday, September 4, 1999