Knowledge gaps, infrastructure costs perpetuate stray voltage issues

The problem has existed for decades and continues to cause problems on Ontario farms

The devastating impact of stray voltage on farms has been well documented, but determining its true source can often be a long, painful process for farmers and electric utilities alike.

Indeed, the immense cost to utility companies of reconfiguring electricity grids — as well as gaps in knowledge on the part of farmers and contractors — continue to perpetuate the issue.

While the former might be largely out of farmers’ hands, there are ways to gain control of the latter.

For this reason, the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) — the government-mandated electric authority for Ontario — is developing resources to help farmers and electricians more efficiently troubleshoot and prevent stray voltage issues coming from farm sources.

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Why it matters: Stray voltage can come from the electricity grid itself, but also from on-farm wiring and system load issues, making the problem a challenge to solve — and an indicator of why stray voltage is still an issue.

Barn electrical systems common culprit

Malcolm Brown, western regions technical advisor for the Electrical Safety Authority explains that all reports of stray-voltage must be investigated according to the Ontario Energy Board. Hydro One’s Farm Rapid Response Team, for example, was created by the utility to respond to these reports.

However, Brown says response team members would often find voltage issues coming from on-farm systems while visiting sites as part of their investigations. This would leave farmers frustrated since significant time was wasted scheduling and conducting site investigations, only to have the investigators not fix their issues.

Hydro One did not provide any statistics on how many cases have been determined, by their rapid response team assessors, to be a result of grid-sourced issues as opposed to inadequate or improperly configured farm electrical systems.

Potential on-farm sources include:

  • Poor or faulty wiring
  • Improper grounding and bonding
  • Unbalanced farm loading
  • Overloaded circuits or panels
  • Defective equipment

In cases where stray voltage is determined to come from on-farm electrical systems, the responsibility to deal with the problem rests with the farmer alone. This poses another challenge, since the farmer in question — and indeed the electrician(s) they may hire — are not usually experts at determining how to fix their systems.

“When equipment fails, livestock are often dependent on a quick resolution that puts farmers in the position of coming up with an innovative solution” said Brown. “Farmers might repair or hook something up not realizing the potential problems, then it gets, forgotten about as the days and tasks continue passing.”

Resources to address knowledge gap

In response, the Electrical Safety Authority established a working group to develop “A farmers’ guide to basic troubleshooting of stray voltage.” The resource was developed in partnership with utilities, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and farmers. The document provides technical information that can guide basic electrical troubleshooting on farm electrical systems and help identify and mitigate the customer contribution of stray voltage.

“I had a number of farmers at the Outdoor Farm Show alone who were ready, after we talked about the resource, to leave immediately and check their own systems,” Brown said.

The Electrical Safety Authority is now working on a similar resource specifically for electrical contractors.

“It seems like simple stuff, but seemingly small mistakes can have big consequences. Until someone puts it down on paper it can be easy to overlook some of these issues,” said Brown.

“Working on farm electrical systems is a specialized task. ESA strongly recommends hiring a Licensed Electrical Contractor with agricultural experience.”

Patrick Lynch, an engineer with Power Line Systems Engineering Inc. — a specialized electrical power testing service that works on stray voltage issues in both agricultural and urban settings — adds that well-intentioned professionals, not to mention the farmers themselves, can even make stray voltage problems worse regardless of the problem’s source.

Resources like those developed by the Electrical Safety Authority are not a bad thing, he said, though a true understanding of stray voltage, regardless of the setting, can’t be picked up overnight.

“You have to have the equipment and the knowledge base. There’s a huge chasm there,” said Lynch.

A notable case at a dairy farm near Orangeville highlights just how difficult it can be to find sources of stray voltage on the farm. The farmer in question, Lynch says, spent in excess of $100,000 trying to solve his electrical issues, which almost bankrupted the farm. Efforts made to correct things were ineffective and at times even counterproductive, but this may not have been the case if the farmer and electrical contractors involved in investigating knew what they were looking for.

Still, Lynch says many stray voltage issues are certainly coming from the grid itself; the only true solution is a reconfiguration of the local electrical infrastructure — and thus far, he says, the truly massive cost of doing so has kept utility providers away.

About the author

Contributor

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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