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Metallic Balloons a Power-Line Threat

May 07, 1987|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: I am enclosing an advertisement by Southern California Edison that ran in a recent issue of The Times. In it there is a drawing of a child running after a metallic balloon that is drifting toward a power line. The ad says, in part: "Adrift in the sky, helium-filled metallic balloons are real troublemakers. When they float across power lines, the result can be widespread power outages. There is also the very real possibility of electric shock if the line falls or if you are holding on to the string of a metallic balloon and it touches the power lines."

I had never heard of this as a real physical danger to people. Or is the electric company just being super-sensitive about its power lines?--J.T.

Answer: Helium-filled metallic balloons, Southern California Edison concedes, don't pose quite the threat to health that leaving a loaded gun around the living room does.

Still and all, according to Bob Hull of the utility's news bureau, the helium-filled metallic balloons "have become a real problem, particularly in the Los Angeles basin and the beach areas where many of them are sold. So far, there have been no injuries."

But so far, there have been about 70 incidents this year when a runaway balloon has come into contact with power lines and caused a short circuit.

"When that happens," Hull said, "it explodes with a loud bang, the balloon disintegrates and there's very real danger that the contact can be explosive enough to sever the line. Then the line can fall to the ground, causing a fire or certainly paving the way for a potentially serious injury to anyone in its way."

The latest such incident took place near Santa Barbara in April, Hull said, and the severed line indeed fell to the ground and started a grass fire. With the Southern California fire season looming before us, the possibility of these incidents repeating are not pleasant.

"The most famous incident, of course, came during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in the summer of '84," he continued. "Thousands of metallic balloons were released at the Los Angeles Coliseum and most of them drifted over the Eagle Rock area, snagged on lines and caused a serious outage."

Southern California Edison decided to downplay the disruption at the time, rather than garner the reputation of being a sore-headed party pooper at an event that was otherwise stunning.

But, Hull adds, "even with no injuries thus far, it's a tremendous problem any time you've got the potential for an outage that doesn't need to happen--causing a great deal of inconvenience and the possible interruption of emergency services."

In Washington, Lou Brott, director of media relations for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, confirms that so far, there have been no reports of deaths or injuries as a result of helium-filled metallic balloons in the United States, but he supported Southern California Edison's position that the potential exists.

Q: You may be a good writer, but your arithmetic leaves something to be desired.

In a recent question on rent control, the writer complained that because rent control allows owners to increase utilities by 1% a year, R. B. will be paying "$50 to $70 a month for gas alone." In your last paragraph you state: "True, your gross monthly charge for gas service since you've been in your apartment has gone from $6 to $7.28 a month. . . . "

The 1% increase for utilities is based on total monthly rent. Therefore, R. B.'s charge for gas increased $6 a month the first year; $6.42 the second year and $6.74 the third year, for a total three-year increase of $19.16 a month. Even taking $7 a month as an average, which is low, in 10 years R. B. would be paying $70 a month for gas alone. I know, because I too have had my rent increased each year for as long as rent control has been in effect. I think it would be wise to correct your answer in a subsequent column.--B.T.

A: It's all too true that my weakest subjects in school were arithmetic and finger painting. As a result I rarely venture into the deep water of math without an anchor to windward.

On this matter, however, I must dig in my heels a bit. What you are doing in your math is compounding the annual gas charge--you're adding the amount of the gas bill in year A to the amount of the gas bill in year B, to the amount of the gas bill in year C. And that's not what the rent control law stipulates. It gives the landlord, if he is supplying the utility (in this case, gas), permission to collect a surcharge equal to 1% of the monthly rent, period. In R. B.'s case this meant a gas charge the first year of $6 (1% of his $600 rent). The second year he was permitted to charge $6.42 (1% of $642) and so on.

You're taking the position that between year 1 and year 2 he was permitted to more than double the amount he collected for providing the gas--from $6 a month to $12.42--and tripling the original bill in the third year. It's a fanciful idea, but it just doesn't work that way.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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