PS&G workers maintain power grid from aloft
Friends and family have sometimes questioned their sanity - and no wonder. Vinnie Carchia pilots a helicopter hovering a few feet from 500,000-volt power lines while PSE&G lineman Ryan Hill repairs them from a side platform.
Friends and family have sometimes questioned their sanity - and no wonder.
Vinnie Carchia pilots a helicopter hovering a few feet from 500,000-volt power lines while PSE&G lineman Ryan Hill repairs them from a side platform.
"Other pilots tell you, 'We were taught to stay away from the wires, and you're putting them right outside your door,' " said Carchia, the utility's only pilot.
"For someone like my mother, it's hard to explain," said Hill, who works on the platform. "People ask if you're crazy and, 'What made you go down that path?' "
Carchia, 36, of West Berlin, and Hill, 35, of Howell Township, Monmouth County, regularly fly the modified helicopter - the first platform of its kind approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to perform maintenance for electric utilities.
They and other PSE&G aerial linemen - on the job for years - will gain national attention when they are featured in the PBS program America Revealed: Electric Nation at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
The program focuses on the intricacies and vulnerabilities of the U.S. power grid and the people who help deliver electricity through 200,000 miles of high-tension transmission lines, said Michaé Godwin, a PBS spokeswoman.
It is part of a series that also looks at the nation's food industry, transportation network, and manufacturing.
"The transmission system from Philadelphia to New York is a major pathway for electricity," said Tom Verdecchio, PSE&G's senior live-line coordinator, who oversees the aerial team. "It's vital to the national grid.
"If you get an outage in one state, it can cascade through the whole Northeast," he said. "You can put a weakness in the system if you turn off the power to a line to work on it.
"We had to develop a program that let us make repairs when the lines were energized."
Verdecchio, 60, of Medford, helped develop an aerial strategy in 2002 that permitted workers to finish their repairs without the electricity completing the circuit.
"As long as it doesn't make contact with the ground, you're OK; it doesn't complete the circuit," he said. "With a helicopter, there's no path for the current to go to ground, which could cause a fatality."
The pilot and a strapped-in lineman wear safety gear, including a flight helmet and a "live-line suit - conductive clothing that allows electricity to go around the body, not through it," Verdecchio said.
The helicopter also is designed to take the current without malfunctioning.
With its specially designed equipment and procedures, the aerial team has played a critical role in monitoring and repairing PSE&G's transmission system of more than 1,400 miles of lines in New Jersey.
The utility serves three-quarters of the state's population of nearly nine million and a 2,600-square-mile area across 14 counties, including Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester, said Deann Muzikar, a PSE&G spokesperson.
Keeping the electricity flowing is a constant effort that's been made easier by the aerial team's surveys, Carchia said.
"We start at 6 a.m. and go until 4 in the afternoon," the pilot said. "We do preflight scheduling and planning, and then go out early before the winds pick up.
"We do as much as we can safely and then take a break for lunch," he said. When piloting the helicopter, "You have to keep calm and relaxed, and stay focused on what you're doing."
The work continues throughout the year as long as the weather cooperates. "The snow is no problem," Carchia said. "It just makes it prettier that way."
The linemen extend a "bonding wand" to the power line, allowing the electricity to flow through it and around them before making repairs.
"The wire has multiple strands, and when there's a lightning strike, it breaks the strands," Hill said. "You go out [on the platform] with armor rods [of hardened aluminum] that wrap around the damaged part. The power flows more efficiently that way."
The aerial team also repairs hardware on the top of the towers and flies along hundreds of miles of wires, looking for problems that need attention.
"My father worked for PSE&G for 41 years and he understands," Hill said. "I love my job."
The team takes many precautions.
"We do everything very safely," lineman Carl Pellegrino, 45, of Howell Township, said. "We're very particular.
"There haven't been any close calls," he said. "You trust your ability, the people you work with, and the equipment."
But it's "a natural reaction of people to say, 'You're crazy,' " Pellegrino said. "My wife worries, but she knows I know the job and we all have each other's back."
The aerial work was literally a step up for lineman Chris Brozowski, who had been climbing towers to make repairs for about 25 years before moving to the helicopter a few years ago.
"It's easier on the body," said Brozowski, 53, of Titusville, Mercer County. "I'm not afraid of helicopters or heights."
For him, it's just a regular job.
"But my family would always say, 'You're nuts,' and I'd try to explain, 'It's not as dangerous as you think.' "