Hit by tsunami of electricity

2014-05-24 00:00

A TSUNAMI of electricity laid waste to Joan Thompson’s home — even setting fire to the TV set next to her bed.

And the frail New Germany grandmother has been living with no appliances — not even a radio — in the month since, because the municipality responsible for that electricity says it wasn’t their fault, and won’t pay.

On Thursday night, “dozens” of homes in Winston Park and Gillitts lost appliances after a sub-station overvoltage, while residents of one Pietermaritzburg suburb were awakened by exploding electronic equipment yesterday, after yet another substation was hit by copper thieves.

Electrical contractors told Weekend Witness that sustained power surges — largely as a result of cable theft at sub-stations — were “frying” suburban homes in KZN every week, and that “almost none of the claims for compensation are successful from either insurance or the cities; they just have to go into their pocket”.

In a statement, Dial Direct Insurance said it could not isolate surge claims stemming from cable theft, but said: “We can confirm that there was a remarkable increase of power surges in March 2014.”

One recent victim, Beverley Coombes, said the phenomenon represented a whole new kind of security cost. “It’s outrageous — we all take extraordinary steps to keep our houses secure from crime, then some thief with a bolt cutter who doesn’t even set foot on our properties costs us R20 000, and we’re told we just have to pay,” she said.

Although lightning strikes and maintenance problems can trigger momentary surges, senior electricity consultant Brian Bilton said most sustained overvoltage “is all about crime at substations nowadays”, in which the cutting of earth wires causes a “loss of neutral protection” that sends a river of 380 volts into homes.

The deputy ombudsman for household insurance, Edite Teixeira-Mckinon, told Weekend Witness that the vast majority of insurance companies no longer cover power surge damage — and that “nine out of 10” customers in KZN had no idea that they weren’t covered by either their insurance company or their city.

Thompson (70) moved into her son’s home just a month before the surge on April 27, in which two top-loader washing machines, three TVs, two DVD players, a microwave, a laptop, four energy saver globes and a fridge were permanently disabled. Thompson said: “My family rented this house to look after me as I am ill. Can’t afford to buy one appliance, let alone every one!” Thompson said one eThekwini official had stated that 400 other homes had been “affected” by surge damage in the same week.

E-mail correspondence shows that, when Thompson challenged electricity official Shaun Francis to show the SAPS incident number recording the theft at the sub-station, Francis replied: “The matter was not reported to SAPS as my technician had several other emergency jobs to attend to on that shift and had consequently omitted to do so.”

Last year, when 200 residents of Lauth Road in Pinetown saw their electronic devices blitzed by cable thieves, no SAPS case of theft had been opened by the city. Thompson said, “The city is well aware of cable theft and have not secured their cables to prevent this; nor have they put safety measures in place, such as high load fuses or safety cut offs.”

Echoing its refusal of almost all other claims, eThekwini denied Thompson’s claim on the basis that “the council does not cover damages that result from power surges created as a result of cable theft”, except in cases where it could be shown that the sub-station was inadequately secured.

A public protector report into a similar surge claim in Cape Town last year found that the padlock system was “inadequate”, and that the city should compensate the claimant.

Meanwhile, Weekend Witness has established that alarms and automated pepper spray devices have been recently installed into 200 Durban sub-stations — after denying hundreds of claims on the basis that their sub-stations were adequately secured.

While eThekwini won’t consider any cable theft-related claim, head of Msunduzi’s electrical task team, Lelani van den Berg said surge damage cases were assessed “on a case by case basis” in Pietermaritzburg.

Last Saturday, 18 households in a Pietermaritzburg suburb were “zapped” by a massive surge — all 18 are filing claims.

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