Did you know you could be shocked at Virginia lakes? Researchers say "politics" blocking fix

SML researchers said electrical industry would rather accept risk than change

SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, Va. – A retired physicist and electrical engineer, retired computer engineer now-volunteer firefighter, and retired liability lawyer, all turned researchers, said politics are getting in the way of making lakes across the Commonwealth a safer place to be.

Their work over the last two years at Smith Mountain Lake shows water in the area around docks with electricity running to them, had bursts of electricity running through it known as stray voltage, putting swimmers at risk of injury of even death. Two teens were shocked on the lake in the last two years, they believe because of it. And while they initially thought bad wiring and out-of-code docks were the problem, they discovered after making upgrades using the current code, things got worse.

Now they say they're facing an uphill battle, stalled in their attempts to get the code changed, because the people in charge won't even look at their research. They don't want to cause panic and said Smith Mountain Lake is still a safe place to be, but say the electrical industry, a heavy influence on the National Electrical Code which is a subset of the National Fire Prevention Association from which states write their laws from, would rather accept the risk of people getting injured and possibly dying rather than make their suggested change.

They said public support will be the only chance they have to prevent more people from getting injured or dying because of stray voltage.

Neil Harrington is the retired computer engineer of the trio and a volunteer with the Smith Mountain Lake Volunteer Fire Department. For more than two years, he has gone to over 200 docks around the lake testing for stray voltage. He plops the yellow plastic device into the water, one end of a string in his hand, the other on the device, to detect electrical current. If it detects current, the device beeps and lights up to alert him to the finding. He still has a list of more than 300 people who want the water around their docks tested, but he's stopped doing it because he said the results are clear.

"Nearly every single one had stray voltage in the water," Harrington said. "And that's why I stopped doing it because it wasn't doing any good for me to test for stray voltage if everybody is going to have stray voltage at the time I test."

On Thursday night, Harrington and his research partners, physicist and electrical engineer Jim Erler, and John Lane, a retired product liability lawyer, gave an update on their journey to end stray voltage. If a dock is powered, the current code requires houses to be connected to their docks by a ground wire. That ground wire then allows electrical current to run from the pole at the street, through the house, and then to whatever is connected at the dock, whether it be boat lifts, underwater pumps, or the dock pilings themselves. Grounds are  they sneeded and to protect plugged in devices from things like surges, but in this case the connected ground is where the group says the current leaks into the water. 

"It's really a simple problem to fix, but it's very difficult to explain," Harrington said. "We're talking about removing just one wire and we make this problem with stray voltage go away."

At first, Harrington believed  old docks with possibly bad wiring or improperly placed grounding poles, which they found a lot of both during their testing, were the possible culprits. So, they suggested people bring their docks up to code with the proper grounding protocol and other upgrades. They found that the problem persisted, or in some cases, got worse.

Erler was one of the people who had requested Harrington to test his dock, and when they performed the test, the device found stray voltage. Erler then upgraded his dock to current code and was shocked to see the changes made the problem worse. He joined Harrington's efforts and used his electrical engineering and physics background to investigate further. Using an oscilloscope, a device that measures voltage signals, he recorded intermittent voltage events. That means it wasn't a constant current, but rather a blip.

Erler said an electrical current is considered lethal if it's above 15 Volts rms for 8.3 milliseconds. In the case he presented Thursday night, he measured a blip of current at 18.7 Volts rms for 40 milliseconds, far over the lethal amount.

That led them to their conclusion of the grounding wire from the house to the dock being the problem. They said that the intermittent voltage events come from arcing power lines or load imbalances from motors starting up on a fridge, air conditioner or boat lift. They said it could originate from the house in question or other homes in the area; it didn't matter. The stray voltage would find the fastest path to the earth which in some cases could be the water. If a boat lift was in the water, they said it was a guaranteed way for the current to enter the water.

"We tested the water in one where there had been a shock and found nothing," Harrington said. "We then put the lift down in the water as it had been described when the shock happened, and the device lit right up."

When the current gets into the water it can electrocutre someone, which is rare, or shock them causing Electrical Shock Drowning (ESD) which breifly paralyzes the body, causing the person to drown and then show no signs of shock after death, a more common occurrence. Harrington said he educates first responders about ESD every chance he gets.

"If we go to a call where someone drowns and they are known to be a strong swimmer, yet they drowned, and there are no other obvious causes, we have to look deeper, " Harrington said.

The trio suggests cutting that connection, instead grounding the house at the house and the dock at the dock, independent of each other, to sever the link and stop the stray voltage from leaking into the water. Their research shows current can leak into the water whether the circuits are on or off, at the house or the dock.

They also said grounding the dock and house independently offers nearly the same protections as a connected grounding wire, which serves no purpose if the required ground-fault circuit interrupters at the dock and house breaker panels fail, or during a partial fault, which is the most reported cause of ESD deaths and injuries according to Erler. He said the only time a connected ground would offer protection would be during the unlikely chance of simultaneous GFCI failures and a high current ground fault at the same time. He compared that to the certain future death or injury if the connected ground wire remains.

However, the independent grounding setup goes against the National Electrical Code, which as of current revision treats docks the same as garages, sheds, barns etc. despite one being in fresh water and the others being on the ground. The researchers said when they brought their findings to the industry groups that are influential in the code's writing, the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), they were stonewalled. Harrington said they were told they don't understand grounding by some people, and others from the electrical industry told them the National Electrical Code would not be changed for something like this.

"It was a lot of pushback, if you look at the three of us who started this kind of grassroots effort movement to get this change, we're not electricians, we're not part of the electrical industry," Harrington said. "This is probably political, it's kind of a not invented here mentality. We don't come from within the industry therefore we shouldn't know how to fix a problem."

The three men from Smith Mountain Lake aren't the first to discover this problem. National resources advise people to not swim around powered docks, a solution the group says are unreleastic. Other research has been conducted across the country including at Georgia Tech, the group said. While Erler said their research was the most in depth they could find, the other research had all met dead end dates and they fear their research could meet the same.

The group said they can't even get industry people to look at their research and tell them that their conclusions are wrong or that their fix would not work. The only group that even entertained their research was the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Working Group on Stray Voltage, which after reading only a briefing, told them the Smith Mountain Lake experimenting did not conform to their standards. Erler said the experimentation standards the working group uses would not even detect the stray voltage at Smith Mountain Lake, which they know is there. Phone call after phone call, email after email, they continue to get told the code is not changing.

That's why the group is now shifting their focus to the Virginia state-level electrical code, a subset of the Virginia Construction Code, which is law, while the NEC is not, in an attempt to get change. They hope the people responsible for the state code will be more open to their research rather than big industry, but know it will be just as tough because those people take their lead from the national code, and in this case the group is suggesting they not just change the state code, but go against the national code all together.

They said getting a change at the state level in Virginia could encourage other states to also make the same change, putting pressure on the national code to follow suit. They may have an advocate in Delegate Kathy Byron, a Republican of the 22nd District covering parts of the lake, who attended Thursday's meeting. She said it's too early to make any promises, but she's advising the group on who to talk to and wants to see how it plays out.

"Industry is a very big lobbying power and they certainly don't want to see people just come along and make a lot of changes to things, but if there needs to be a change, that's not a good enough excuse," Byron said. "We need to make sure the public is protected and that we look at the safety issues surrounding it."

In 2017, a teen was shocked when swimming in the water around a powered dock on Smith Mountain Lake. The teen was able to back away without injury and the group determined there was stray voltage coming off the boat lift that was delivered to the dock through the connected ground wire. When the teen touched the boat lift while in the water, a common thing for swimmers to do, the circuit was completed and delivered the shock.

In 2018, another teen was shocked and hospitalized for three days after swimming around a powered dock on the lake with the lift in the water. The researchers determined it was caused by an intermittent voltage event, a routine load imbalance caused by something more than likely starting up somewhere on land and delivered to the dock through the connected ground wire.

The researchers have only been able to find one case where stray voltage was the culprit from a connected ground wire and someone was held liable. In 2009, three teens were shocked when swimming in Wyoming because of a combination of connected ground wire and a bad neutral wire. A normal load imbalance caused stray voltage to leak into the water, killing one of the teens and doing brain damage to the other two. The electric utility was sued in court, and the judgement ordered the utility to pay $2.3 million for the incident. Multiple other people have died from believed ESD, but from other current leakages and not due to the connected ground wire.

They don't want to speculate if any of the unusual drownings on Smith Mountain Lake were caused by ESD since they didn't know about the stray voltage then and ESD is undetectable in the body after death and hard to prove from environmental observation at time of drowning. But, the group hope that something like that never happens on the lake and said this is possible at not just other lakes in Virginia, but lakes across the country. They're encouraging people to keep their boat lifts out of the water as much as possible and for people swimming in the water to not touch boat lifts. They also encourage a non-swimmer to stay on the dock and watch the people in the water.

While they're hoping to educate as many property owners as possible, they're also concerned about the large rental population at the lake who expects to have a safe family vacation and is completely unaware of the risk just below the surface.

"Generally, what we see is small amounts of stray voltage that shows up, but you never know when that spike is going to happen," Harrington said. "We want to prevent that spike from finding its way to the dock."

The group will go before a work group of the Department of Housing and Community Development in Glen Allen on August 21st to present their research in the hopes of getting the code changed. They've also scheduled two more meetings to garner support, the first on August 15th at 6 p.m. at the Scruggs Fire Department and the second on either August 13th or 14th near Lake Anna in northern Virginia, time and date to be determined.

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