11 Major Causes of Power System Failures
11 Major Causes of Power System Failures (on photo: Two Snakes Who Died In Electrical Box)

Utility Reliability Problems

To gain a broader understanding of power system reliability, it is necessary to understand the root causes of system faults and system failures. A description of major failure modes is provided below.

  1. Underground Cable
  2. Transformer Failures
  3. Lightning
  4. Tree Contact
  5. Birds
  6. Squirrels
  7. Snakes
  8. Insects
  9. Bears, Bison, and Cattle
  10. Mice, Rats, and Gophers
  11. Vandalism

1. Underground Cable

A major reliability concern pertaining to underground cables is electrochemical treeing. Treeing occurs when moisture penetration in the presence of an electric field reduces the dielectric strength of cable insulation. When the dielectric strength is degraded sufficiently, transients caused by lightning or switching can result in dielectric breakdown.

Electrochemical treeing usually affects extruded dielectric cable such as cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE) and ethylene-propylene rubber (EPR), and is largely attributed to insulation impurities and bad manufacturing.

Underground cable fault
Underground cable fault (PHOTO CREDIT:

To reduce failures related to electrochemical treeing, a utility can install surge protection on riser poles (transitions from overhead to underground), can purchase tree-retardant cable, and can test cable reels before accepting them from the manufacturer.

Existing cable can be tested and replaced if problems are found. One way to do this is to apply a DC voltage withstand test (approximately 3 times nominal RMS voltage). Since cables will either pass or not pass this test, information about the state of cable deterioration cannot be determined.

Another popular method for cable testing is to inject a small signal into one end and check for reflections that will occur at partial discharge points. Other methods are measuring the power factor over a range of frequencies (dielectric spectroscopy), analyzing physical insulation samples in a lab for polymeric breakdown (degree of polymerization), and using cable indentors to test the hardness of the insulation.

Tracing an Underground Cable Fault (VIDEO)

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Not all underground cable system failures are due to cable insulation. A substantial percentage occurs at splices, terminations, and joints. Major causes are due to water ingress and poor workmanship. Heat shrink covers can be used to waterproof these junctions and improve reliability.

The last major reliability concern for underground cable is dig-ins. This is when excavation equipment cuts through one or more cables. To prevent dig-ins, utilities should encourage the public to have cable routes identified before initiating site excavation. In extreme cases where high reliability is required, utilities can place cable in concrete-encased duct banks.

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2. Transformer Failures

Transformers are critical links in power systems, and can take a long time to replace if they fail. Through faults cause extreme physical stress on transformer windings, and are the major cause of transformer failures.

Overloads rarely result in transformer failures, but do cause thermal aging of winding insulation.

When a transformer becomes hot, the insulation on the windings slowly breaks down and becomes brittle over time. The rate of thermal breakdown approximately doubles for every 10°C. 10°C is referred to as the “Montsinger Factor” and is a rule of thumb describing the Arrhenius theory of electrolytic dissociation.

Power transformer failure
Power transformer failure (photo credit:

Because of this exponential relationship, transformer overloads can result in rapid transformer aging. When thermal aging has caused insulation to become sufficiently brittle, the next fault current that passes through the transformer will mechanically shake the windings, a crack will form in the insulation, and an internal transformer fault will result.

Extreme hot-spot temperatures in liquid-filled transformers can also result in failure.

This is because the hot spot can cause free bubbles that reduce the dielectric strength of the liquid. Even if free bubbles are not formed, high temperatures will increase internal tank pressure and may result in overflow or tank rupture.

Failure of 230/69kV Autotransformer (VIDEO)

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Many transformers are fitted with load tap changers (LTCs) for voltage regulation. These mechanically moving devices have historically been prone to failure and can substantially reduce the reliability of a transformer.

Manufacturers have addressed this problem and new LTC models using vacuum technology have succeeded in reducing failure rates.

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3. Lightning

A lightning strike occurs when the voltage generated between a cloud and the ground exceeds the dielectric strength of the air. This results in a massive current stroke that usually exceeds 30,000 amps. To make matters worse, most strokes consist of multiple discharges within a fraction of a second. Lightning is the major reliability concern for utilities located in high keraunic areas.

An isokeraunic map for the world is shown in Figure 1 below.

Number of thunderstorm days per year
Figure 1 – Number of thunderstorm days per year

Lightning can affect power systems through direct strikes (the stroke contacts the power system) or through indirect strikes (the stroke contacts something in close proximity and induces a traveling voltage wave on the power system).

Lightning strike - transmission tower
Lightning strike – transmission tower

Lightning can be protected against by:

  1. Having a high system BIL,
  2. Using shield wires,
  3. Using surge arrestors to clamp voltages across equipment, and
  4. Having a low impedance ground.

Direct strikes are virtually impossible to protect against on a distribution system.

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4. Tree Contact

Trees continuously grow, can fall over onto conductors, can drop branches onto conductors, can push conductors together, and can serve as gateway for animals. This is why many utilities spend more on tree trimming than on any other preventative maintenance activity.

When a tree branch bridges two conductors, a fault does not occur immediately.

This is because a moist tree branch has a substantial resistance. A small current begins to flow and starts to dry out the wood fibers. After several minutes, the cellulose will carbonize, resistance will be greatly reduced, and a short circuit will occur. Branches brushing against a single phase conductor typically do not result in system faults.

Tree distances from overhead lines
Tree distances from overhead lines (photo credit:

Faults due to tree contact can be reduced by using tree wire. This is overhead wire with an insulated jacket similar to cable. Tree wire can be effective, but faults tend to result in conductor burndown since they will not motor (move themselves along the conductor) like faults on bare conductor.

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5. Birds

Birds are the most common cause of animal faults on both transmission systems and air insulated substations. Different types of birds cause different types of problems, but they can generally be classified as nesting birds, roosting birds, raptors, and woodpeckers.

Nesting birds commonly build their homes on transmission towers and in substations. Nesting materials can cause faults, and bird excrement can contaminate insulators.

Nesting birds also attract predators such as raccoons, snakes, and cats. These predators can be a worse reliability problem than the birds themselves.

Seattle City Light workers remove an osprey bird nest near the Duwamish River that caused a short circuit
Seattle City Light workers remove an osprey bird nest near the Duwamish River that caused a short circuit (photo credit:

Roosting birds use electrical equipment to rest on or to search for prey. They can be electrocuted by bridging conductors with their wings, and their excrement can contaminate insulators. To prevent birds from roosting, anti-roosting devices can be placed on attractive sites. For locations that cater to thousands of roosting birds, more extreme deterrent methods such as pyrotechnics can be used.

Raptors are birds of prey such as eagles, hawks, ospreys, owls, and vultures. Reliability problems are similar to other roosting and nesting birds, but special consideration may be required since most raptors are protected by the federal government.

Woodpeckers peck holes in wood with their beaks as they search for insects. This does not harm trees (the bark regenerates), but can cause devastating damage to utility poles. This can be prevented by using steel poles, by using repellent, or by tricking a woodpecker into believing that there is already a resident woodpecker (woodpeckers are quite territorial).

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6. Squirrels

Squirrels are a reliability concern for all overhead distribution systems near wooded areas. Squirrels will not typically climb utility poles, but will leap onto them from nearby trees.

A squirrel chewed into a power line
A squirrel chewed into a power line in Trumbull, Connecticut, where the Nasdaq’s computer center is located, shutting down trading for 34 minutes. It was the second time it had happened (photo credit:

They cause faults by bridging grounded equipment with phase conductors. Squirrel problems can be mitigated by cutting down nearby access trees or by installing animal guards on insulators.

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7. Snakes

Snakes are major reliability concerns in both substations and underground systems. They can squeeze through very small openings, can climb almost anything, and have the length to easily span phase conductors.

This three meter long cobra is the culprit that caused a major power failure in Modimolle. The incinerated breaker can be seen in the background
This three meter long cobra is the culprit that caused a major power failure in Modimolle. The incinerated breaker can be seen in the background (photo credit:

Snakes are usually searching for food (birds in substations and mice in underground systems), and removing the food supply can often remove the snake problem. Special “snake fences” are also available.

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8. Insects

It is becoming more common for fire ants to build nests in pad mounted equipment.

Fire ants nesting inside transformer
Fire ants nesting inside transformer (photo credit:

Their nesting materials can cause short circuits, the ants can eat away at conductor insulation, and they make equipment maintenance a challenge.

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9. Bears, Bison, and Cattle

These large animals do not typically cause short circuits, but degrade the structural integrity of poles by rubbing on guy wires. Bears can also destroy wooden poles by using them as scratching posts, and black bears can climb wooden utility poles. These problems can be addressed by placing fences around poles and guy wire anchors.

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10. Mice, Rats, and Gophers

These rodents cause faults by gnawing through the insulation of underground cable. They are the most common cause of animal-related outages on underground equipment. To make matters worse, they will attract snakes (also a reliability problem).

Equipment cabinets should be tightly sealed to prevent these small animals from entering. Ultrasonic devices can also be used to keep rodents away (ultrasonic devices will not keep snakes away).

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11. Vandalism

Vandalism can take many different forms, from people shooting insulators with rifles to professional thieves stealing conductor wire for scrap metal. Addressing these reliability problems will vary greatly from situation to situation.

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Reference: The electric power engineering handbook – L.L. Grigsby (Purchase hardcover book from Amazon)

About Author //


Edvard Csanyi

Edvard - Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, buildings and industry fascilities. Designing of LV/MV switchgears.Professional in AutoCAD programming and web-design.Present on


    Nov 20, 2015

    Dear All.
    Its been realy a nice experience to read about various electrical issues and comments.
    Basically I can be treated as a new entry in the Electrical Engineering and I find this forum as a learning Hub for me.
    I am experiencing a problem in my Transmission and Grids Network.
    The T/Lines interconnecting about 6 NO different Wind Power Projects totalling to 300 MW Generation and situated under the coastal effect influence and barren land. The area is less cultivated. The problemetic geographical area is 50% dominated by the dry land and 50 % by the salinity hit land with very less cultivation.
    Now during Fog , The tripping of one T/Line initiates some times the tripping of more than 5 transmision lines coincidently.
    I am of the openion that no doubt it could be a matter of insulator cleaning but it is also a matter of nongraded Protection and transients supported with the re striking voltages during the process of cascaded trippings.

    However as I told that I m a new entry so please do guide and educate that how to avoid such large No of coincident outages of the T/Lines , which normally plunges the entire area in Dark.

    I Love to be student of you ALL.


  2. Rehan Dharme
    Mar 25, 2015

    I really like the articles but up by EEP, very helpful and Hardly any errors.

    Thank You

  3. Ben Lanz
    Mar 24, 2015

    Small correction with a big impact. Water trees ( the new term for the old electro- chemical trees) are stress enhancements that can initiate electrical trees. This process can take decades. Electrical trees grow when during transient overvoltage events until the inception voltage is sufficiently low enough for partial discharge activity to be present at the operating voltage. This process can take years. Once the erosion is constant at operating voltage the erosion process is accelerated the the insulation will most likely fail soon.

    Mar 22, 2015

    This is a good write up but can fault be eliminated in our power system how can we achieved 365 days uninterrupted supply.

    • Rehan Dharme
      Mar 25, 2015

      Ideal system not physically possible but with having redundancy we can have very high up-time, the very concept used in Data centers

  5. Francisco
    Mar 20, 2015

    Good article. Thanks.

  6. Vicente Martinez
    Mar 19, 2015

    This is a very good article, thank you for your good publications

  7. zai nazik
    Mar 19, 2015

    Thank for all your effort on supplying all electrical specially for those who work on sites
    so plz accept my thanks

    • A K TYAGI
      Mar 22, 2015

      Good article .It covers almost all aspects with good visuals. Thanks.

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