Austin Energy upgrades made after power surges destroy property

Replaced transformer on E. 56th St. (KXAN/Kylie McGivern)
Replaced transformer on E. 56th St. (KXAN/Kylie McGivern)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Energy is making changes for homeowners experiencing massive, recurring, unexplained power surges.

Those changes are now in the works, after a KXAN Investigation revealed fried appliances and other electrical dangers earlier this summer. Austin Energy customers reached out about the problems happening on E. 56th Street in their north central Austin neighborhood.

“Initially what we found was that most of the outages have probably been related to weather,” Carlos Cordova, with Austin Energy told KXAN in June. “But we don’t want to stop there.”

This was after Council Member Greg Casar’s office pushed for further investigation.

Within weeks of KXAN’s investigation, homeowners received a letter from Austin Energy, saying it “didn’t find any problems with the design of the electrical system.” The utility’s analysis found the problems were “probably caused by weather, storms and trees.”

As a precaution, crews, removed and replaced old wiring, added two more transformers, trimmed trees and will begin monitoring voltage in select areas. The letter to homeowner adds: “These enhancements may lessen the probability of similar-type surges from occurring, but it cannot totally prevent it because we cannot control the weather and its severity.”

East 56th Street is a block bound by the suffering of three damaging power outages in three years. In the most recent round, Randolph Ruiz lost $4,000 worth of property. Even with the changes, Ruiz said Austin Energy’s letter is more like lip service and doesn’t really get to the heart of what went wrong with the damaging power surges.

“Austin Energy’s not taking any responsibility,” Ruiz said. “Some of the neighbors call it a power surge, but it was a consistent influx of power.”

Several neighbors expressed safety concerns when sparks were flying from appliances and onto the floor.

“The safety concerns really are paramount. And especially when you have older utilities that run above ground in some older neighborhoods, then it’s much easier for those utilities to be impacted if there’s a falling tree limb during a storm, which we’re getting more and more of. And so Austin Energy upgrading that infrastructure really reduces the safety risk.” Casar said. “And although Austin Energy said that a lot of that infrastructure wasn’t aged out yet, I’m glad that they stepped up to the plate.”

Casar said that stepping up, will reduce the chances of the extreme surges happening in the future. Unfortunately, the upgrades will do nothing to reimburse homeowners for what they lost in the past.

When asked if Ruiz was pleased with the utility’s response, he said, “Oh no, definitely not. I don’t think any of the neighbors are. We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on and we feel like they’re trying to wait out as much time to, you know, make us give up in some form or another.”

The move leaves neighbors hoping theupgrades, really do make a difference.

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