Aging electric infrastructure poses challenges for city

Claremore ordered smart meters to replace analog meters in an effort to increase the efficiency.

CLAREMORE — In Claremore, some utility poles first installed prior to the 1960s still stand, as decades of addressing different priorities have left the city struggling to replace an aging electric infrastructure.

“Everyone here has inherited a mentality of what isn’t broke don’t fix — which is sad, because it has put us in a bind where we are having to fix it all now,” said Larry Hughes, deputy director of Claremore Electric.

Hughes said if an electric company is functioning well, it should always be replacing infrastructure. However for many decades, the city invested in projects outside of improving electric infrastructure. Delaying equipment replacement led to a backlog of necessary improvements.

“The problem is, for so long, that is how they built up the rest of Claremore, by not putting so much money back into the infrastructure,” Hughes said. “Infrastructure as a whole has been massively neglected because powers that be chose to go different directions with those monies — and the community loves a lot of it. We have to do certain things to bring more businesses to town.”

Some of the past projects that were higher priorities than infrastructure improvement include construction of the Claremore Expo Center and the Recreation Center.

In wasn’t until 2005 that the city passed a multi-million dollar bond dedicated in part to replacing switchgears that had not been upgraded or maintained since 1969. It was the first major upgrade in decades. The switchgears were stored in a building with a chronically leaky roof, raising safety concerns for workers and residents.

The switchgear building includes fuses, circuit breakers and disconnect switches designed to protect electrical equipment and isolate electric system problems.

Now, the important equipment is located inside a locked and climate-controlled building, which is much safer, Hughes said.

When it comes to electricity Claremore has four “hearts,” according to Hughes. Those hearts of Claremore electric are the substations located around the community that transform 69,000 volts of electricity from GRDA to 8,000 volts — power that is then distributed and sold to residential customers and businesses.

The substations buzz with electricity traveling through hundreds of miles of lines.

“That is part of it — electric does have vibration and it works things loose, which is why we have to be replacing the infrastructure regularly,” Hughes said.

Infrastructure improvements include replacing outdated utility poles and the equipment on each, such as insulators, lightning arrestors and “cutouts,” which act as fuses.

It is not uncommon for the city to replace poles originally installed in the 1980s or even earlier. The old poles are sometimes leaning or have damage from termites and other insects.

In addition to aging overhead lines and utility poles, 350 miles of underground electric lines deliver electricity to Claremore customers. Approximately 175 miles of the underground lines are not “in conduit,” or covered in a protective material that prevents damage.

“Electricity is bleeding out into the ground,” Hughes said. “Not in full voltage, but it is costing the city. Every once in a while it will bleed enough that the electricity will cause a blink in that area and it will just get worse.”

In previous decades, Hughes said the Claremore Electric’s policy was to simply splice a problem area, but that caused weak spots in the lines. Over time, hundreds of weak spots can cause neighborhoods to be plagued with a series of regular blinks.

Hughes said in the process of replacing lines city workers found a 175-foot section with more than six splices.

“That splice may last 15 years or only two,” Hughes said. “Everything we install now is in pipe to protect the line from rocks.”

Hughes said workers could find problem areas with a Fault Finder, a $25,000 machine owned by the city, and while the technology is great for emergencies, for many years it was used as a way to ignore a growing problem.

“For years Claremore was kicking the can down the road, and then we just had too many cans to kick,” Hughes said. “I have been here 16 years. The stuff we put in conduit 10 years ago, by the time that decade comes by, it is time to replace it again, so now we are revolving back around. Even though it will be quicker since it is conduit, we are still going to have to go do the work to replace the line.”

Another way the city is attempting to make replacing underground lines more efficient is by purchasing a boring machine, which will save time — and reduce disruption of residents’ yards.

Another strategy to update outdated infrastructure was to implement smart meters, replacing analog meters.

“Meters are supposed to be changed every 20 years, but that wasn’t happening,” Hughes said. “Analog meters have moving parts, and as gears wear over time they go slower. Coils in the meter are magnetic, over time they also degenerate. It is just like a car, if you don’t fix any parts it is going to stop working.”

The city decided to purchase new meters for every resident even if they opted out of the smart meters, simply because of the age of many meters.

While smart meters have fewer moving parts that deplete efficiency, the installations did not come without controversy. Some residents experienced higher bills, which were the result of a variety of factors, city officials said.

“If something in your home is wasting electricity we want to stop it — we want to help you,” Hughes said.

Claremore has decades of catching up to do on its electric infrastructure and it will take time, funding and manpower to make the system run most effectively. Progress will depend heavily on future sales tax revenue, according to Hughes.

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