New transformer installed as Manassas power problems mount

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Manassas city officials are hoping a second-hand transformer will fix its electrical woes — at least for now.

A used transformer was shipped to the city on loan last week and installed Monday at the Battery Heights substation, the source of several widespread outages that have left thousands in the dark for hours in recent months.

The new transformer will temporarily replace the substation’s old one, which was facing several issues even before it was twice struck by lightning earlier in the summer. In the last two weeks, some city residents have lost power on two separate occasions — most recently on July 28 and days earlier on July 24, when over 1,500 customers lost power for several hours.

But even before the lightning strikes that brought the latest spate of outages, the city’s electrical system was facing “unprecedented” outages related to failing parts at Battery Heights, according to Manassas Utilities Director Tony Dawood. Residents have faced significant outages in February, April, June and July.

“These outages, for the city, are unprecedented,” Dawood said in June. “We’re doing everything we can, as quickly as possible, to make the station whole again.”

The city operates its own electric distribution network, purchasing power on the PJM energy market through NOVEC. But typically reliable service — a point of pride for the city-owned utility — has become a mounting problem at Battery Heights, one of four residential-focused substations.

Numbers are not yet available for July, but in June the average power customer in Manassas lost power for more than 26 minutes. In June of 2022, the average customer was without power for just over 4 minutes.

City Manager Pat Pate told InsideNoVa that prior to the lightning strikes, some of the substation’s insulation was failing and allowing water to damage several components.

“That [insulation] issue has been fixed, but as a part of what we’re doing on the Battery Heights substation, they’re going to do a complete soup-to-nuts review of that station, and we’re going to basically upgrade everything in the station that could possibly need upgrading to prevent that from happening again,” Pate said.

The substation and many of its components are over 30 years old.

As the problems compounded, officials tried to bypass certain components at the substation, but that only added stress to other parts of the network as temperatures rose in June and July, resulting in low-level light flickering or full-blown outages like the one on July 24.

“There was a little bit of a prolonged outage there for certain people longer than we typically would have, and that was related to the additional loads we put on those lines. And our system is pretty much underground, which makes it very reliable, and you don’t have storm issues, but in this case, when you have cables that fail, it’s harder to find those cables because they’re underground,” Pate said.

The rental substation installed on Monday comes from Pennsylvania on a three-month loan. It will cost the city roughly $400,000 all told, but it won’t be a permanent solution. While it’s expected to keep things up and running for the time being, the city’s utility department is hoping to fix the transformer that was struck by lightning.

The lead time for a new transformer, Dawood said, is about two years. So for now, the city is hoping to breathe new life into what it already has.

“What’s very unique to electrical equipment is it doesn’t fail like you would think, instantly,” Dawood said. “It’s a cumulative process, so it takes time. You can test this piece of equipment and it’ll show that it’s working when, in fact, it’s already been deteriorating. And then it’ll completely fail.”

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