Zap! Johnny Shocked By “Stray Voltage”

Thomas MacMillan PhotoRobert Musco was on his morning walk when his dog suddenly yelped in pain and bolted into the street.

Nope, it wasn’t the spirit of Eli Whitney reaching out from the graveyard to pinch the pooch. Johnny had been shocked by electricity leaking onto the sidewalk from a nearby lamp post.

It was the second time Musco had seen a dog behave that way. His old labrador, Frank, had reacted the very same way at the same spot before he died last year.

Having seen two dogs react to the sidewalk that way, Musco knew something was up. He contacted the city, which found a mechanical problem in a lamppost and fixed it.

The sidewalk may be safe, but Johnny (pictured) seems to have developed a complex about walking in the area—on Prospect Street between Grove and Trumbull. And Musco said he’s concerned the problem of “stray voltage” may exist in other spots in the city.

It’s a phenomenon responsible for the death of a number of dogs in other cities and, in 2004, a 30-year-old woman in New York City.

“Stray voltage” describes the electrification of objects that should not be electrified, like lamp posts, manholes, and sidewalks. Stray voltage can cause a mild shock or, rarely, can be deadly. Animals, not normally wearing shoes, are in greater danger of getting shocked.

In 2004, Columbia grad student Jodie Lane was electrocuted when she stepped on a metal plate in New York City. In a resulting one-year study, the Consolidated Edison power company found 1,214 instances of stray voltage in the city. Between 2004 and 2005, more than 30,000 objects in New York were found to be electrified by stray voltage, according to the Jodie S. Lane Public Safety Foundation.

Walking dogs in New Haven, Musco (pictured), a Spanish teacher and translator, has found two possible instances of stray voltage in town.

Some time ago, Musco was walking his old chocolate lab, Frank, near the corner of York and Grove streets when Frank all of a sudden showed signs of pain. Musco said he reported it to Yale security but never heard a response.

He didn’t then bother to report it the second time it happened, on Prospect Street between Grove and Trumbull. He just avoided walking Frank at those spots. Frank didn’t have as strong a reaction as Johnny later would.

Frank passed away last summer. Musco got Johnny, another chocolate lab. On Tuesday Jan. 8, the pair were out on their morning walk at about 6:30 a.m. It was a damp morning; the sidewalk was wet.

“As I reached a certain point on the sidewalk, he yelled out in pain,” Musco recalled. “He jumped in the air and ran out in the street.”

Johnny seemed to be unharmed, but he refused to walk on any sidewalks, panting in fear the whole way home. Musco had to take him home by way of strips of grass, which proved difficult.

Now that two dogs had acted so strangely at the same spot, Musco knew he had found a problem. Another dog-owner later told him the he couldn’t get his dog to even walk on that side of the street.

Musco’s next challenges was figuring out how to alert the city to the apparent problem. “Who do you call for something like that?”

After looking through the city website, Musco eventually emailed the city engineering department, alerting staff there to a bit of electrified sidewalk between the sixth and seventh lamp posts on the cemetery side of Prospect Street.

When he didn’t hear back, Musco turned to SeeClickFix, the neighborhood problem-solving website. On Wednesday, he posted his email there.

On Thursday, the Livable City Initiative posted to SeeClickFix that the fire department had been notified. Then Rick Fontana of the Emergency Operations Center posted to say that “an immediate response to this has been initiated.”

In a later SeeClickFix blog post, site founder Ben Berkowitz considered the possibility that Johnny was shocked not by stray voltage but by one of the many illustrious spirits resting in eternal peace in the nearby cemetery. The most likely culprit, he surmised, would be Josiah Gibbs, the father of thermodynamics.

On Friday morning, the engineering department emailed a staffer at the Pasquariello Electrical Corporation, asking him to check out the problem. On Friday afternoon the staffer emailed back: “all-set here something maybe salt from when the sidewalks are salted deteriorated the bug and it was resting on the pole base causing a small amount of voltage to leak. We rebugged and tested ok.”

Musco received an email that same day, telling him it was fixed.

Fixed it may be; Musco hasn’t taken Johnny by there to find out. Johnny is now nervous to walk on the block again, let alone the very sidewalk where he was shocked, Musco said. “Even just walking down this street, he doesn’t want to come back.” Johnny still prefers to be on the grass rather than the sidewalk.

And Musco is nervous that other lamp posts may be leaking voltage in other spots in the city. He said he plans to follow up with another letter to the engineering department asking staff to see whether the lamp posts might have some sort of defect.

“What I’m concerned about now is is this a fluke … or a design flaw?” Musco said. The lights aren’t that old; they shouldn’t be leaking electricity into the sidewalk, he said. “It’s something that definitely needs to be looked into.”

“This is the first time it’s ever happened to my knowledge,” City Engineer Dick Miller said of Johnny’s shocking encounter. The city has 11,000 streetlights, he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”

“I can’t tell whether this is endemic. My gut says it isn’t because this is the first time,” Miller said. “We’ll have to be very vigilant. If you get a pattern you’ll have to look at it in a more serious manner.”

Miller said that while the engineering department took the problem very seriously and addressed it immediately, “we’re not going to around and check every street light because of it.”

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posted by: anonymous on January 17, 2013  4:51pm

Some cities are using proactive testing (which is much more than just “going to each street light to check it”) as a way to reduce this hazard.

Jodie Lane was not the first person to die from this, and if regulations are not changed to promote safety, she won’t be the last.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 18, 2013  10:23am

Five years ago the same thing happened to my pup on a wet sidewalk in front of the Owl Shoppe on College Street. The first time I thought it was a fluke, the second time I realized something was amiss.

Fwiw, I skipped the City and called United Illuminating instead, who came out and fixed it promptly.

Here’s hoping Johnny-dog comes to trust walking on the sidewalk again!

posted by: Curious on January 18, 2013  1:35pm

Checking each and every one of 11,000 lamp posts in the city could be a cool project for engineering or electrical students at one of the city’s numerous colleges.

posted by: CVIC on January 18, 2013  1:36pm

I just read with great interest and alarm the story of the electric shock to
the Labrador.Just 2 years ago a 4 month old lab pup was killed here in
Providence, RI when she stepped on a snow and salt covered roadway which was
energized by a faulty underground wire. As a result of this incident,the RI
legislature passed a law mandating our utility company to perform mobile testing for “contact voltage” anywhere where there is an underground power delivery system. The program is to be monitored by the PUC.
At the Contact Voltage Information Center
( you can learn about the many deaths to people and pets
that have occurred as a result of this deterioration in the infrastructure.

posted by: anonymous on January 19, 2013  11:45am

CVIC, I agree. I’m surprised our city engineer thinks that having his department “checking each light” is the way to address this. We live in 2013, not 1913.