Lineman removing balloons from power lines

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. lineman Jacob Bell removes metallic balloons from power lines recently in San Luis Obispo.

Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, often means flowers and chocolates. Helium-filled balloons are also one of the ways to show your valentine just how much you care.

Unweighted balloons — particularly metallic ones — can cause lots of problems if they escape control, however, and here’s why:

Low-pressure systems and associated cold fronts this Valentine’s Day will produce moderate gale-force to fresh gale-force, 32 to 46 mph southerly winds, with gusts to 55 mph that can drive these loose balloons across the landscape.

High-pressure systems over the Great Basin can produce equally powerful Santa Lucia winds that can carry them out over the Pacific Ocean.

When Mylar balloons climb to between 3,000 and 7,000 feet, they either explode or leak, causing them to lose their “lift” and fall into the ocean.

Unfortunately, such oceanic creatures as sea turtles can mistake the balloons for food. When eaten, the balloons clog the creatures’ intestinal tracts, causing them to starve.

When they blow over land, they can end up nearly anywhere, including in pristine wilderness areas and national parks and forests.

Jay Snow, a park ranger, retrieves Mylar balloons from Death Valley National Park.

At 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in the United States. It’s also the hottest; the valley reached a record 134 degrees July 10, 1913.

The park is a land of fierce beauty with magnificent landforms surrounded by snowcapped mountains.

“You hike for miles through this vast wilderness area and discover a canyon, a canyon that only a few people have probably walked before, but like clockwork you come across one of these metallic balloons,” Snow said.

One of his fellow rangers has found so many of the colorful chromelike spheres with “happy birthday” written in joyful letters along the top that he’s wallpapered the inside of his cabin with them.

Two types of balloons — Mylar and latex — are in use today. Mylar balloons are made with Mylar nylon, a material not classified as biodegradable. They often are coated with a metallic finish that conducts electricity.

On the other hand, latex balloons are elastic and composed of natural rubber that is biodegradable.

Latex weather balloons — the kind launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base — are filled with helium and are about 4 feet in diameter at sea level. As they rise through the atmosphere, they expand in diameter.

By the time they reach about 100,000 feet, they expand to about 40 feet in diameter.

Air temperatures at that altitude can drop to 50 degrees below zero or lower and freeze the latex.

At that high altitude, a frozen balloon undergoes “brittle fracturing” and ruptures into small shreds of rubber that fall to Earth.

That fact is key to understanding how so many Mylar balloon find their way to Death Valley.

For most of the year, the winds blow from the Pacific Ocean over Los Angeles toward the east at elevations typically below 6,000 feet.

Those “onshore” winds carry Mylar balloons that have broken free or have been released from the greater Los Angeles area and find themselves on a journey toward Death Valley.

Easterly winds are predominant in late fall and winter and may be transporting the balloons from the Las Vegas area.

In both of those scenarios, the winds carrying the balloons hit the windward slopes of mountains that surround most of Death Valley, quickly rise to their bursting point and fall to the valley floor.

Not only do those metallic balloons litter pristine wilderness areas, but they also are a major cause of electric power outages.

When the metallic balloons come into contact with electric power lines, they get tangled in the lines and have the same effect as a wrench coming into contact with both the negative and positive terminals of a car battery.

The metallic balloon can cause power lines to short out, which can trigger the conductor to break, resulting in energized lines falling to the ground.

Last year, metallic balloons were the cause of 503 power outages across Pacific Gas and Electrical Co.'s service area in Northern and Central California, disrupting electric service to more than 265,000 homes and businesses.

Unlike latex helium balloons, metallic balloons can stay inflated and floating for two to three weeks — posing a hazard to power lines and equipment even days after being released outside.

To reduce those numbers and help ensure that everyone can enjoy this Valentine’s Day, PG&E reminds customers to follow these safety tips for metallic balloons:

• “Look Up and Live!” Use caution and avoid celebrating with metallic balloons near overhead electric lines.

• Make sure helium-filled metallic balloons are securely tied to a weight heavy enough to prevent them from floating away. Never remove the weight.

• When possible, keep metallic balloons indoors. Never permit metallic balloons to be released outside.

• Do not bundle metallic balloons together.

• Never attempt to retrieve any type of balloon, kite or toy that becomes caught in a power line. Leave it alone and immediately call PG&E toll-free at 800-743-5000 to report the problem.

• Never go near a power line that has fallen to the ground or is dangling in the air. Always assume downed electric lines are energized and extremely dangerous. Immediately call 911 to alert the police and fire departments

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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