The middle of March in New England usually signals the transition to Spring, but not so in March of 2017. That’s when a late season blizzard with the rather benign name, Stella, powered through the Northeast dumping up to three feet of snow, spawning tornadoes, and leaving 100,000 customers without power. It was the kind of storm traffic managers and municipalities dread.
Stella was no exception. As it blanketed Newburyport on the northern coast of Massachusetts, power was knocked out to every intersection. That is, every intersection but one. A massive power outage had left the signals dark, except at Old Route 1 and Low Street where the signals were still fully operational.
Two weeks earlier, Electric Light Company’s Tim Kinnon had organized the replacement of a standard traffic control cabinet with a McCain low-voltage ATC cabinet, to demonstrate the benefits of McCain’s cutting-edge 48VDC equipment. McCain is the leader in ATC cabinets with five times as many units deployed as its nearest competitor, so when police officers who were putting up signs warning of non-functioning traffic lights discovered the McCain signals still working despite the devastating storm, word traveled fast to the local department of public works, Massachusetts DOT (MassDOT), and to Kinnon’s boss at Electric Light. “I was very excited about it,” said Kinnon. “It took about a year to get them to install the cabinet and to see that work come to fruition is a great satisfaction. At a crucial moment, we made one intersection safer for everyone.”
Dark signals during a snow emergency compound the danger of driving and while a few jurisdictions have generator backups to bridge downtime during power failures, the majority including MassDOT, do not. Typically, that means intersections remain dark until power is restored, but when engineers returned to Old Route 1 and Lowe Street 10 hours later, the signals were still running. Not only that, but the battery backup was still at 70%; theoretically enough to run the intersection for two days fully actuated and two weeks in flashing yellow.
Ironically, it wasn’t the winter performance that originally sold MassDOT on testing the McCain ATC cabinet in Newburyport in the first place. Rather, it was the safety applications of the low-voltage cabinet. Standard devices, which operate on 120VAC, require installers and technicians to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid electric shock from exposed components whenever they open the cabinet. This gear is not only costly but can make it more challenging for techs to complete their work. The exposed components in a McCain low-voltage cabinet operate on less than 50V – below which is considered non-hazardous and often doesn’t require PPE – dramatically reducing the chance of injury. For technicians, the installation and setup learning curve are incredibly short. Says Kinnon, “It’s much easier than programming a smart TV and a typical installation can use the existing foundation.”
Since the Newburyport experience, word has indeed gotten out. As Kinnon says, “This industry is small and in some ways it’s like a family. If you mess up, everyone will hear about it, but if you do something good, everyone will hear about that too.” The story is opening doors with agencies across the northeast evaluating the cabinet, and it’s standard 120VAC counterpart, for their own installations and approved product lists. But Kinnon says there’s no reason to stop there. “I see this technology as being beneficial absolutely everywhere. I cannot think of a geographic location that doesn’t have some kind of event – be it storms, hurricanes, or earthquakes – or just simply the potential for a power outage. These cabinets are applicable anywhere in the world.”