Blame it on the Squirrel

Yes, the culprit responsible for the blackout that left much of the campus in the dark early Monday morning was a squirrel. No, you shouldn’t be surprised.

Squirrels have long plagued electricity substations, and it’s a problem that the electricity industry has yet to solve.

Take, for instance, Tampa, where its electricity provider, Tampa Electric Co., sees squirrels knocking its power out every day. Just how do the tiny critters manage to wreak so much havoc?

“You need to talk to the spokesman for the squirrels because I’m not sure exactly what they are doing,” said TECO spokesman Ross Bannister.

In 2002, Progress Energy, a North Carolina company, sent out a warning to its customers about the four-legged power fiends.

“Squirrels are more active in fall months as they gather nuts to prepare for survival during the winter,” Les Hunter, Carolina Power and Light’s senior forester, said in the news release from November. “Squirrels also have an innate need to chew and, unfortunately, they sometimes choose to chew on power lines in order to sharpen and clean their teeth.”

How exactly Monday’s squirrel managed to blackout parts of USF is unclear. The outage lasted about 30 minutes, and affected the Phyllis P. Marshall Center, Cooper Hall, Student Services, the residence halls and several other buildings around campus.

Bannister said the squirrel caused the university’s substation to de-energize the transformer, causing it to shut down.

A squirrel caused a similar outage in November, which left parts of the campus without power for 45 minutes.

In fact, there seems to be a squirrel epidemic of sorts nationwide. Bannister said TECO has tried many methods to try to prevent the creatures from disrupting the power flow — they’ve installed barriers, nets and have even spread predator urine around the substation.

Elsewhere in the United States, electric companies try to repel the squirrels by covering utility poles with slick plastic. Others use fake owls. And the predator urine technique that TECO has tried without much success is, apparently, a common approach. Just go to, where a $130 gallon of fox urine promises to keep pesky squirrels away.

Part of the problem lies in the expansion of power grids across the country. Couple that with the stubbornness of the squirrel mind as the grids begin to infringe on their habitats, and what you get is a persistent problem that seemingly has no tried and true solution.

“A squirrel thinks, ‘This is the way I’ve gone all my life, and just because you built a substation, don’t think for one minute I’m not going to go there’,” Sheila Frazier, a utilities adviser for Energy Consulting Group LLC in Marietta, Ga., told the Wall Street Journal in February.

But even with a surge in innovative products, the problem persists. And customers don’t quite understand, Bannister said.

“Sometimes customers are incredulous about it,” he said. “They think we are covering up a bigger problem.”

In some cases, he said, customers don’t believe TECO officials until they come up with a charred body or a clump of singed fur.

“They’re clever and they’re persistent and they’re squirrels, so they can cover great distances and they can leap,” he said.

In Tampa, only the weather causes more power outages than animals do, Bannister said.

“There’s not a lot we can do,” he said.