UK guards against squirrels after critters cause power outages

Squirrels: They’re cute, they’re fuzzy and they’ve been causing power outages all over campus.

In response to four power outages in the last two months, the university is now installing about $100,000 in guards to keep squirrels from shorting the power and killing themselves, said Richard McClure, a physical plant division manager at UK.

“We’ve had that problem on and off for several years,” McClure said. “There’s always some kind of varmint that gets in your substations.”

A burst of cold weather at the end of last winter affected the squirrels’ food supply, which could be one of the contributors to this semester’s squirrel problems, he said.

“All the fruit got killed off by the frost of spring,” McClure said. “The frost was hard on the critters.”

UK will split 841 squirrel guards between the campus’ three power substations. The dome-shaped guards will cover each station’s multiple insulators.

Squirrels that are looking for a space to stay or for food will jump from outside the station to the insulators and metal wiring, McClure said, which kills them instantly.

When squirrels enter the station and crawl over the insulators, they sometimes touch the electrical wiring and steel support structure at the same time. This creates a bridge between the two, which bypasses the insulators and results in a short in the power.

“I don’t think they detect it at all until they get zapped, and then they get fried,” said Richard W. Thorington, the curator of mammals at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

While the casualty rate of squirrels is high— about half of the population of squirrels born at the same time will die within a year—the species has evolved to survive natural threats like bad weather and man-made ones, like electrical boxes, Thorington said.

“They’re very successful, they’re very innovative,” Thorington said. “And most of the time you learn to live with it.”

At UK, the primary concern when squirrels crawl into the electrical stations is the hospital, research labs and the university’s safety systems, said Bob Wiseman, UK’s vice president for facilities management. However, any power outage at the hospital is “just a flicker” lasting a few seconds, he said, because UK has multiple power back-ups.

Other universities throughout the state have experienced problems with squirrels, but the physical plant directors from the University of Louisville, Centre College and Transylvania University said they have not had any squirrel-related power outages this year.

“I’d say in the last ten years, we’ve had maybe three instances,” said Larry Jefferies, director of U of L’s physical plant division.

However, Wiseman said that a quick Web search will reveal that UK is not alone in its problems with squirrels.

“You’ll find that campuses around the country are facing this same problem,” Wiseman said. “I think some people on campus think we’re making this up.”

Electricity problems aren’t limited to squirrels, McClure said. Although it has not happened yet this year, possums, raccoons and big birds have made their way through the physical plant department’s fences and caused small outages or interferences with UK’s electricity.

While animals, especially squirrels, can be irritating sometimes, McClure said it’s a problem UK will just have to deal with.

“It’s Mother Nature,” McClure said. “I mean, you’ve got to live in harmony with Mother Nature.”