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The Ingenious Meaning Behind Red Balls On Power Lines – And How They’ve Saved Countless Lives

Jul 2, 2021

Image:  Aerial power line marker ball colors - scribol.com
 
You can’t miss them when you look up says this article from scribol.com. Those bright red, orange and white spheres hang from the power lines overhead like huge Christmas baubles. You can see that they’re spaced perfectly apart, too. But while that neat pattern is obviously by design, the balls themselves aren’t just there for show. They have a purpose, and a rather ingenious one to boot.
 
When these spheres started appearing is up for debate. Some say that the red balls began popping up in both Florida and Arkansas in the 1950s. Others, by contrast, claim that they came to Arkansas first – and not until the 1970s. Thankfully, you don’t have to pick a side of this rather unexciting argument... And in any case, the balls are definitely all across the country now.
 
You may occasionally have to squint to spot the spheres, however, as they don’t appear to be all that big. Not true! Remember that some are hundreds of feet in the air, so what you see on the ground isn’t a representation of their true size. Some of the larger varieties actually measure up at a minimum of 36 inches in diameter.
 
On the other hand, the balls that hang a bit closer to the ground – say, under 50 feet above where you stand – may be only 20 inches in size. These are distributed a bit less generously than their more sizable counterparts. Smaller spheres are allowed to be a mere 30 feet apart, while the bigger ones are separated by about 200 feet.
 
Clearly, this is all part of a well-regulated system. So, what purpose do these brightly colored, perfectly sized and evenly spaced balls have to say to passersby? If you don’t yet know, there’s a good chance that you’re not in the industry – and it may not be the reason you’re thinking of, either.
 
We’ll give you a clue, though: it’s something to do with what those power lines transport. Yes, electricity! And being able to light up our cities and homes is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. It took until 1882 for engineers Oskar von Miller and Marcel Deprez to send electricity over a long distance. The pair relied on overhead wires that would normally transmit telegraphs, using these to pass a 2.5-kilowatt current over a 35-mile stretch. That may not sound far, but it was revolutionary at the time.
 
Before this landmark moment, a power plant could only serve the towns and cities nearby. That meant electricity had just a short journey from its point of creation to the businesses and residences that needed it. But as time went on, utility companies moved into larger, more remote facilities. The only issue? They were too far away from their customers now.
 
To fix this problem, power companies had to come up with a brand-new way to efficiently transport electricity from its point of creation all the way to consumers. This was no easy task. And any wasted power was money lost for these businesses, so coming up with the right conduction system was super-important. Enter the power line.
 
Now, high-voltage electricity is easily transported from plants to the areas where we live and work. But you may be surprised to hear that the power lines up above aren’t insulated. Why is that? Well, it’s been deemed a waste of money, as few folks ever get close enough to them. Any underground lines will be insulated, mind you, to protect people in the vicinity.
 
Accidents do happen with power lines – mostly electrocutions. These typically occur when a construction worker or their equipment touches the cable while also being in contact with the ground. This position creates a sort of conductor, allowing the power to travel from the live wire through the person and into the earth.
 
But this also explains why birds can sit on power lines without any problems. Electricity won’t leave the lines unless it has a pathway into the ground, meaning the winged creatures can perch on the wire without feeling the deadly surge. They do have problems if they brush against two wires at once, however, or if they simultaneously come up against both a line and the wooden poles that hold it up.
 
Fortunately, power companies have looked after our feathered friends, bumping up the distance between lines so that birds won’t hit two wires at once when they sit down. So, crows, pigeons and others of their kind are perfectly safe to while away some time up there, as you’ve certainly seen them do.
 
But we don’t just spot birds on power lines. Sometimes – especially in cities – we notice old shoes hanging up there, too. People tie the laces of two sneakers together then launch them up toward the lines. And a good throw will usually hook the shoelaces over the wire, leaving them dangling for everyone in the neighborhood to see. Often you’ll count hundreds of pairs hanging up together on just one section. This phenomenon looks pretty cool, sure, but while looking up at a power line have you ever really stopped to think about just why those kicks are all up there? Actually, there’s an interesting reason for it – several, in fact.
 
We also have a stat that will shock you. Between 2008 and 2015, the city of Chicago was asked to remove at least 6,000 pairs of shoes from power lines, according to the radio station WBEZ. But it’s not an issue exclusive to the Windy City. In fact, you’ll see sneakers dangling overhead in places across the globe. And it’s a phenomenon with many possible explanations.
 
Some have linked sneakers on power lines to urban crime – especially clashes related to gangs. A former gang member named Patrick Starr confirmed this to WBEZ in 2015. Apparently, he and his buddies would mark their territory with overhead footwear. In other cities, crews have used shoes to signal where rivals have died or where their own have fallen victim to violence.
 
Perhaps you’ve heard, though, that a hanging shoe represents a spot where people sell drugs. Well, Chicago locals have refuted this notion. And there are the stories of people whose friends pranked them or tossed their sneakers as payback for a lost bet. There’s no single reason, then, why shoes end up overhead.
 
But while sneakers aren’t added to electrical cables by city officials, there are a few baubles that do get the official stamp of approval. And unlike dangling tennis shoes, such state-approved items have a clear purpose and meaning for those who know how to interpret them.
 
Perhaps you’ve gazed at a transformer and the high-voltage lines that jut from it – only to notice some disc-like objects around the electric cables. Regardless of their color, these are probably insulators to prevent the live wires from touching anything that could cause a shock.
 
You see, if the wires run next to or into a transformer, they have a direct pathway to the ground. And because most transformers are metal, they can conduct electricity downwards – which power companies naturally don’t want. So, insulators are placed around the lines to separate them from a transformer’s edge.
 
Insulator disks can also protect power plant transformers from storms and electrical surges. You may even have seen power lines being hit by lightning and wondered about the impact. Well, thankfully, you don’t have to worry about this if there are insulators up there.
 
Perhaps you’re nowhere near a transformer, though. And what you’re seeing isn’t a disk-shaped stack on a power line. No, what you’ve noticed is unmistakably spherical: a giant plastic ball hanging from the electrical wires overhead. You may be floating across a lake, driving through a canyon or simply passing by your local airport.
 
These balls come in a variety of colors, too. At first, the go-to hue was red, but experts transitioned to using bright orange later on as their default. Still, you may still see crimson spheres or even yellow or even white ones. And as we previously mentioned, they come in different sizes.
 
The balls generally sit at 200-feet intervals from one another, although they may be closer together as you approach an airport. All of these details give a hint as to the purpose of these spherical additions to your local power lines. And there’s one last ironic detail about them to consider.
 
Interestingly enough, the giant power line spheres you see have to be fixed to the wires in a death-defying manner. Workers can’t always reach the lines, after all – even with the tallest cherry-picker. How do teams get up there? Well, they sometimes have to fly in a helicopter, which hovers next to the cable for long enough to attach the massive, brightly colored bead.
 
And as we’ve previously discussed, these markers started appearing in the 1950s – if you believe one group of folks, anyway. Apparently, states including Florida and Arkansas began to hang the balls on their electrical wires. Others say that the trend started 20 years later in Arkansas, when the state’s governor took a flight and noticed something disconcerting upon landing.
 
Supposedly, Winthrop Rockefeller looked out of the window of his plane and saw electrical cables right by the craft. That’s enough to spook anyone! And, rightly, Rockefeller believed that these live wires should be made more conspicuous to pilots making their way toward the runway. So, the spheres started appearing as a warning to aviation professionals: stay away from the dangerous cables ahead.
 
Pilots in other states didn’t have the same warning system – at least, not as early as they had them in Arkansas. And in one case, it caused a disaster. At the tail-end of the 1980s, Colorado officials began to install the balls across their state’s famously rugged terrain, but they didn’t do it quickly enough to prevent an accident over the South Platte River.
 
In 1988 a news channel’s helicopter collided with a thin steel cable that dangled 150 feet over the river. And, horrifically, that impact was enough to cause the vehicle to crash. There were casualties, too, as a pair of journalists both sadly perished in the tragic incident.
 
But even with that and other accidents logged, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can’t make it a requirement for every state to hang the colorful balls on their live wires. Instead, the agency can only advocate that these warning symbols are used to protect overhead aircraft from fatal collisions.
 
And, remarkably, it’s not uncommon for helicopter pilots to collide with live wires. A 2003 report in FAAviation News explained that they often hit the cables for any one of a number of issues. These include “dirty windscreens, light conditions [and] the obscuring effects of terrain and changes in visual perspective that occur during climb and descent.”
 
On top of that, the report claimed that “accurately judging the helicopter’s distance from unmarked wires is nearly impossible.” Even a pilot who follows the same path back and forth from the airport could be at risk when wires change shape over the seasons, the color of the cables alter or if another optical illusion presents itself.
 
There are also certain places where you’re more likely to see these spheres, which are known as visibility marker balls in the aviation field. They tend to dangle in spots where planes and helicopters often fly low – such as canyons, mountain passes and valleys – as well as over freeways and on the lead-up to airports.
 
And the cables that zigzag across these areas have to be tagged with the visibility marker balls. Otherwise, as planes start to descend, their pilots may not be able to see the lines ahead. The FAA guidelines stipulate why the balls should come in certain sizes and colors, too.
 
As you may have already guessed, the spheres you see over lakes, rivers and canyons are extra-large. The FAA stipulates that they be a minimum of 36 inches across, in fact. But those smaller markers – 20-inch balls – are deemed more than sufficient for power lines that are less than 50 feet in height. You’ll see the sized-down versions at the end of airport runways as well.
 
And if you look out of your airplane window, you’ll see that the spheres are much closer together as you taxi toward the bottom of the runway. Those markers tend to have just 30 to 50 feet between them. That way, they act as handy indicators that the craft is approaching the edge of the tarmac.
 
  But why are the visibility markers red? Well, simply put, because you can see them against the sky! That said, a later FAA study found that orange was a more visible shade for pilots. So, you’re more likely to spot fire-colored spheres hanging from power lines nowadays, even if there will still be exceptions.
 
Ultimately, it’s down to the surroundings in which the markers will hang. The color that makes them the most visible to pilots is the shade that local officials should choose. And in most cases, that hue is going to be a bright orange.
 
If a wire is equipped with fewer than four balls, then all of them should come in this garish shade of clementine. Longer wires with more balls may be better served with a pattern of colors, however, to ensure that at least one of them catches the pilot’s eye. Most of these sequences change back and forth between orange, white and yellow.
 
And the visibility markers haven’t just staved off aerial disaster. In 1983 an article from United Press International pointed out that the spheres had also helped steer geese away from dangerous live wires. Boat captains had learned to avoid them, too, the piece noted.
 
That’s great news for professionals across the aviation and boating industries as well as those concerned with wildlife conservation. The giant, colorful spheres on your power lines do something: they save lives. And, now, when you drive by and see them in all their orange, red, yellow or white glory, you can appreciate all they do just by dangling from your city’s electrical cables.
 



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