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Metallic Balloons Popular, But a Valentine's Day Hazard

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Published on Feb 12, 2013

Red roses, chocolates and even teddy bears. Valentine's Day is an opportunity to show that special someone how much you care.

For J. Miller Flowers and Gifts, a family-owned Oakland florist, Feb. 14 is one of the busiest days of the year.

"We have lines of customers from the register all the way out to the sidewalk," said florist owner Valerie Lee Ow. "All four phone lines are ringing."

But there's something else they sell that without proper care can be dangerous and destructive.

Helium-filled Mylar balloons. Yes, balloons.

Can cause explosions, bring down power lines

Many may not realize it, but every year these popular metallic balloons float away and get caught in power lines, causing explosions on electrical equipment and bringing down power lines.

Nacho Araquistain is an electric troubleman based in Hayward. In nearly three decades with PG&E, he has seen the kind of problems that metallic balloons have caused. Last Valentine's Day, he noticed a street vendor selling heart-shaped balloons.

"Her whole stand was just covered with balloons and I thought to myself, 'Well, we're going to have a problem today,'" he recalled.

Later that day, he was alerted to an outage.

"I looked up and sure enough there was a string of 15 Mylar balloons on the line," Araquistain said. "I went up there and cut the balloons down and came back down and handed them to the vendor and I told her that you need to be very, very careful. She was very surprised at the extent of the explosion she saw directly across from her."

Balloon-related outages increasing

Over the past 10 years, the number of outages in PG&E's territory due to these balloons has more than doubled. The balloons are made of a metallic compound that conducts electricity.

"It's the conducting that creates the problems," Araquistain said. "Any time the balloon gets between two phases or two wires in the ground then you have current flow. And it's the current flow that causes the arc and that's what short circuits our equipment."

State law requires that Mylar balloons be sold with a weight attached. Many florists sell the balloons with a reminder to customers to be responsible.

"It's extremely important for us and our community that we try to be as safe as possible with the Mylars," said Ow, who estimated that as many as 70 percent of her customers add balloons to their flower orders.

PG&E always recommends keeping the balloons indoors and deflating them before putting them in the trash. And above all, hold on to those balloons.

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