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Power, water failures leave the island dark and dry


A complex electric breakdown involving multiple major components and 15,000 customers, plus a malfunction at the Vero Beach Water Treatment Plant, added up to a dark and confusing couple of hours for Vero Utility customers last Sunday night.

The good news is that water service was restored in less than 30 minutes and power came back on system-wide in about two hours, and as of press time city utility officials were testing all effected equipment to ensure the same problems won’t happen again.

Power went out at 6:25 p.m. Sunday when Substation 7 in the 1800 block of 53rd Avenue went down, leaving approximately 15,000 customers – nearly half of Vero’s electric system – in the dark just after sunset.

City Manager O'Connor said a resistor burned out that was regulating power coming into Substation 7 from two high-voltage feeder lines.  When fail-safe mechanisms sensed the incoming power was not in balance, they shut down the substation. With the substation shut down, city officials think the incoming power backed up into the system and burned out the feeder lines.

Soon after residents lit candles and scrambled to find flashlights, many tried to turn on their faucets and discovered their water was also out.

Vero’s Water and Sewer Director Rob Bolton said the city’s water system is designed to keep water flowing even during power failures.  The water treatment plant is fed power by two different electric substations and there are backup generators. Vero tests the backup generators once per month for four hours.

“When we tested three weeks ago, everything worked fine,” Bolton said.

What happened Sunday night was not a failure of the backup generators, but of an automatic pump-regulation system. The automated system, which monitors water pressure in pounds per square inch (PSI) and regulates how much water flows to customers, “froze up,” Bolton said. “It went into an error fault and shut itself down.”

The display still showed 67 PSI, which is normal, but the regulator defaulted to a shut-down mode and out-going water pressure plummeted, drying up faucets as far away as the Town of Indian River Shores.

“The generator is so loud you couldn’t hear that the pumps weren’t running,” Bolton said. “It’s a diesel generator that produces one megawatt of electricity. Normally, you can hear the pumps running, but with the display frozen showing 67 PSI, and the noise of the generator, it wasn’t apparent right away that the pumps weren’t running.”

When technicians determined what had gone awry, they switched the pump system into manual override and restored the water pressure. But since the pressure fell below 20 PSI, Bolton issued a system-wide “Precautionary Boil Water Notice” as required by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Health about three hours after the power outage occurred, or around 9:45 p.m.

“I sent the notice out to the media and called the television stations so they could get it on the 11 o’clock news,” Bolton said. “I notified the hospital and the Indian River County School District superintendent, plus St. Edward’s School.”

Kim Leach-Wright of the Indian River Medical Center Marketing Department said the hospital’s generators kicked in automatically and ran for two hours before power was restored. The facility had low water pressure for about 90 minutes, but patients were provided with bottled water and told not to drink from faucets or taps. That order remains in force for 72 hours or until the boil water notice is lifted.

Power did not go off at the Behavior Health Center or at the Scully-Welsh Cancer Center.

Indian River County Director of Utilities Vincent Burke said County water crews were busy connecting the hospital to nearby County water lines as a temporary fix when the city water came back on. Burke said the County is ready and willing to help Vero in any way it can during a crisis situation like Sunday night, should it happen again.

Bolton said this was the first system-wide stoppage of water leading to a system-wide boil-water alert in the past 25 years, except for during natural disasters. “We did issue system-wide boil water notices after the hurricanes when the power had been off for an extended period.” Bolton said.

On Monday, the utility department was running tests and simulations, trying to insure that the outage will not be repeated.  “There are nine pumps. Two of them were running at the time of the power outage. Worst-case we’ll just leave one of the pumps on manual or ‘hand’ setting and that would keep the water pressure up above 20 PSI if it should happen again,” Bolton said

Throughout the incident, Bolton said the city had plenty of stored-up water – 4 million gallons of it, which equates to nearly 18 hours of consumption – but no mechanism to pump it out with the pump regulator frozen.

The component that malfunctioned is scheduled to be replaced in the next two to three years as part of a multi-million-dollar upgrade and expansion to Vero’s reverse-osmosis treatment system. After the testing this week, Bolton said his crews will have a better idea of whether or not that replacement needs to be moved up to ensure the integrity of the plant’s automated pumping capability.

In the meantime, Bolton said he would be working on ways to get information out to utility customers in a timelier manner, maybe via social media or some sort of notification system by text or email, such as the Town of Indian River Shores and the Indian River County Emergency Services District use.

Bolton said the law requires Vero to publish a boil water notice within 24 hours of a severe drop in water pressure or other conditions that warrant boiling water. “But I understand that people want to know sooner, they want that information right away,” Bolton said.

While Bolton and his crews at the water treatment plant were simulating a power outage to make sure the water doesn’t go off again, City Manager Jim O’Connor and Electric Utilities Director Ted Fletcher were overseeing testing on the electric side. The feeder line has been repaired and O’Connor said it is “good to go.” Parts were replaced at Substation 7 and were being tested on Monday afternoon.

During the outage Sunday night, O’Connor said all linemen and the entire substation crew were called into action. Overall, considering the fact that multiple major components – a substation and feeder line – gave way at once, the outage time of less than two hours is remarkable.

“I am never pleased with an outage but appreciate the response from the crews and their knowledge of the issue,” O’Connor said. “Considering the complexity, the crews did very well in restoring the power.”

Big Blue was powered down last fall, but O’Connor confirmed that having the city’s generating units available would not have brought power back on sooner. It takes approximately three hours to fire up the generators and pump electricity out to customers. “Big Blue would not have helped in this situation,” O’Connor said.  

Staff Writer Tom Lloyd contributed to this report.