In electrical engineering, live-line working, also known as hotline maintenance, is the maintenance of electrical equipment, often operating at high voltage, while the equipment is energised. Although this is more hazardous for personnel than working on electrical equipment with the power off, live-line maintenance techniques are used in the electric power distribution industry to avoid the disruption and high economic costs of having to turn off power to customers to perform essential periodic maintenance on transmission lines and other equipment.
The first techniques for live-line working were developed in the early years of the 20th century, and both equipment and work methods were later refined to deal with increasingly higher voltages. In the 1960s, methods were developed in the laboratory to enable field workers to come into direct contact with high voltage lines. Such methods can be applied to enable safe work at the highest transmission voltages.
In general, it is impossible to determine visually whether electrical equipment is energized; in any event, it is often necessary to maintain or repair circuits while they are in operation. In addition, at high voltages, it is unnecessary to come into direct contact with charged equipment to be shocked because an arc can jump from the equipment to a tool or part of the body. Materials such as rubber, while excellent insulators, are also subject to electrical failure at high voltages.
In general, there are three methods of live-line working which help workers avoid the considerable hazards of live line working. In various ways, they all serve to prevent current flowing from the live equipment through the worker.
Hot-stick working appeared in the second decade of the 20th century, when insulating poles made from baked wood were used for tasks such as replacing fuses, replacing post insulators, and transferring lines onto temporary supports. The sticks enabled the linemen to carry out the work without infringing on the minimum clearance distances from live equipment. As experience with the techniques developed, then the operating voltages at which the work was performed increased. With the advent of fibreglass poles in the late 1950s, which neither split nor soaked up rainwater, utilities were prepared to carry out hot-stick working to their highest operating voltages, perhaps 765 kV.
Tools, such as hooks or socket wrenches can be mounted at the end of the pole. More sophisticated poles can accept pneumatically or hydraulically driven power tools which allow, for example, bolts to be unscrewed remotely. A rotary wire brush allows a terminal to be scoured clean before a connection is made. However, a worker's dexterity is naturally reduced when operating tools at the end of a pole that is several metres long.
Gloves protect the worker from exposure to the live part being worked upon sometimes referred to as the 1st point of contact; the point where current would enter the body should an inadvertent contact be made. Covers of insulating material such as blankets and linehose are employed in rubber glove working to protect the worker from exposure to a part at a different potential sometimes referred to as the 2nd point of contact; the point where current would leave the body should an inadvertent contact be made.
Bare-hand, or potential working involves placing the worker in direct electrical contact with an energized overhead line. The worker might work alongside the lines, from a platform that is suspended from them, or may sit or stand directly on the line itself. In all cases, the worker's body is maintained at the same voltage as the line. It is imperative that the worker maintain appropriate and adequate limits of approach to any part at a different potential. Such techniques were first used in 1960.
There are a number of ways in which the worker can access the live parts:
As the lineman approaches the wire, an arc will form between them as the worker is charged. This arc can be debilitating, and the worker must immediately bond himself electrically to the line to prevent further arcing. A worker may use a conducting wand during the approach to first make the connection. Once on the line, the worker is safe from shock as both the lineman and the wire are at the same electric potential, and no current passes through his body. This is the same principle that allows birds to safely alight on power lines.
When the work is completed, the process is reversed to remove the worker safely from the wire. Barehand working provides the lineman with greater dexterity than the hot stick method, and may be the preferred option if conditions permit it. With this technique, insulator strings, conductor spacers and vibration dampers can be replaced, or lines spliced, without any loss of supply.
The strong electric field surrounding charged equipment is enough to drive a current of approximately 15 ?A for each kV·m-1 through a human body. To prevent this, hot-hand workers are usually required to wear a Faraday suit. This is a set of overalls made from or woven throughout with conducting fibers. The suit is in effect a wearable Faraday cage, which equalizes the potential over the body, and ensures there is no through-tissue current. Conducting gloves, even conducting socks, are also necessary, leaving only the face uncovered.
There is little practical upper voltage limit for hot-hand working, and it has been successfully performed at some of the highest transmission operating voltages in the world, such as the Russian 1150 kV system.
A lineman wearing a Faraday suit can work on live, high-power lines by being transported to the lines in a helicopter. The worker can perform maintenance sitting on an outrigger platform attached to the helicopter while the aircraft hovers next to the line. When approaching the line a long wand is touched to the line to equalize the potential of the aircraft to that of the line, then a breakaway bonding wire connected to the helicopter's frame is attached to the line during work. Alternatively the worker can transfer to the wires from the helicopter and crawl down the wires, then be picked up by the helicopter after the work is completed.
An electric arc is extremely bright, including in the ultraviolet, and can cause arc eye, a painful and potentially blinding condition. Workers may be provided with appropriately tinted goggles that protect their vision in the event of a flash, and provide defence against debris ejected by an arc.