The Clever Meaning of Red Balls On Power Line: How They’ve Saved Numerous Lives

Published on 03/15/2021
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When you look up, you can’t miss them. Those bright red, orange and white spheres dangle like giant Christmas baubles from the power lines above. They’re also perfectly spaced apart, as you can see. However, while the neat pattern is clearly intentional, the balls themselves aren’t just for show. They serve a purpose, and it’s a clever one at that.

The Clever Meaning of Red Balls On Power Line: How They've Saved Numerous Lives

The Clever Meaning of Red Balls On Power Line: How They’ve Saved Numerous Lives

Where It First Appeared

It’s unclear when these spheres first appeared. According to some, the red balls first appeared in Florida and Arkansas in the 1950s. Others, on the other hand, claim to have arrived in Arkansas first in the 1970s. Thankfully, you don’t have to choose a side in this rather dull debate… In any case, the balls are now scattered across the country.

Where It First Appeared

Where It First Appeared

Not Accurate

However, because the spheres don’t appear to be very large, you may have to squint to see them. That is not the case! Keep in mind that some of them are hundreds of feet in the air, so what you see on the ground isn’t an accurate representation of their true size. Some of the larger varieties have a minimum diameter of 36 inches.

Not Accurate

Not Accurate

Different Sizes

The balls that hang a little closer to the ground – say, less than 50 feet above where you stand – may only be 20 inches in diameter. These are given out less generously than their larger counterparts. The smaller spheres are 30 feet apart, while the larger ones are 200 feet apart.

Different Sizes

Different Sizes

Not What You Think

This is, without a doubt, all part of a well-regulated system. So, what are the purposes that these brightly colored, perfectly sized, and evenly spaced balls are trying to convey to passers-by? There’s a good chance you’re not in the industry if you don’t already know – and it’s not for the reasons you think.

Not What You Think

Not What You Think

Power Lines Transport

But we’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with the power lines themselves. Yes, electricity! And the ability to illuminate our cities and homes is a relatively new phenomenon. Engineers Oskar von Miller and Marcel Deprez did not send electricity over a long distance until 1882. The pair used overhead wires previously used to transmit telegraphs to transmit a 2.5-kilowatt current over a 35-mile stretch. While this may not appear to be fair, it was revolutionary at the time.

Power Lines Transport

Power Lines Transport

A Historic Moment

A power plant could only serve the towns and cities nearby before this historic moment. That meant that electricity only had to travel a short distance from its source to the businesses and homes needed. On the other hand, utility companies moved into larger, more remote facilities as time went on. The only problem? They had gotten too far away from their customers at this point.

A Historic Moment

A Historic Moment

Solving The Problem

To solve this problem, power companies needed to devise a brand-new method of efficiently transporting electricity from generation to consumption. This was not a simple task. And any wasted power meant money lost for these companies, so designing the right conduction system was crucial.

Solving The Problem

Solving The Problem

Power Lines Are Not Insulated

High-voltage electricity can now be easily transported from power plants to our homes and workplaces. However, you might be surprised to learn that the power lines above your head are not insulated. What is the reason for this? It’s been determined that it’s a waste of money because few people ever get close enough to them. Any underground lines will, of course, be insulated to protect people in the area.

Power Lines Are Not Insulated

Power Lines Are Not Insulated

Causing Accidents

Power lines do cause accidents, the most common of which are electrocutions. These usually happen when a construction worker or their equipment comes into contact with the cable while also coming into contact with the ground. This position acts as a conductor, allowing power to flow from the live wire through the person and into the earth.

Causing Accidents

Causing Accidents

Free To Perch

However, this also explains why birds can safely sit on power lines. The winged creatures can perch on the wire without feeling the deadly surge because electricity won’t leave the lines unless it has a path into the ground. They do have issues if they come into contact with two wires at once or if they come into contact with both a line and the wooden poles that hold it up at the same time.

Free To Perch

Free To Perch

Protecting Our Feathered Friends

Fortunately, power companies have taken precautions to protect our feathered friends, increasing the distance between lines so that birds do not sit on two wires simultaneously. As a result, crows, pigeons, and other birds of their ilk are perfectly safe to spend time up there, as you’ve undoubtedly witnessed.

Protecting Our Feathered Friends

Protecting Our Feathered Friends

Shoes Hanging Up There

However, we don’t just look for birds on power lines. We occasionally notice old shoes hanging up there as well, especially in cities. People connect the laces of two sneakers and launch them toward the lines. A good throw will usually hook the shoelaces over the wire, leaving them dangling in plain sight for all to see. Hundreds of pairs are frequently hung up together on a single section.

Shoes Hanging Up There

Shoes Hanging Up There

6,000 Pairs Of Shoes

According to the radio station WBEZ, Chicago’s city was asked to remove at least 6,000 pairs of shoes from power lines between 2008 and 2015. However, it is not a problem unique to Chicago. In fact, you’ll see sneakers dangling from the sky all over the world. And it’s a phenomenon that could be explained in a variety of ways.

6,000 Pairs Of Shoes

6,000 Pairs Of Shoes

Linked To Urban Crime

Some have linked urban crime, particularly gang-related clashes, to sneakers on power lines. Patrick Starr, a former gang member, confirmed this to WBEZ in 2015. Apparently, he and his pals would use overhead footwear to mark their territory. Crews in other cities have used shoes to mark the locations of rivals’ deaths or their own victims of violence.

Linked To Urban Crime

Linked To Urban Crime

It Represents Something

However, you may have heard that a hanging shoe represents a drug sale location. Locals in Chicago, on the other hand, have disproved this theory. There are also accounts of people whose friends pranked them or threw their sneakers at them as a form of retaliation for a lost bet. So there’s no single reason why shoes end up overhead.

It Represents Something

It Represents Something

Some Get The Official Seal Of Approval

While city officials do not add sneakers to electrical cables, a few baubles do get the official seal of approval. Unlike dangling tennis shoes, these state-approved items have a clear purpose and meaning for those who understand them.

Some Get The Official Seal Of Approval

Some Get The Official Seal Of Approval

Disc-Like Objects

Maybe you’ve looked at a transformer and the high-voltage lines that protrude from it, only to notice some disc-like objects encircling the wires. These are most likely insulators to keep the live wires from touching anything that could cause a shock, regardless of color.

Disc Like Objects

Disc Like Objects

A Transformer

The wires have a direct path to the ground if they run next to or into a transformer. Because most transformers are made of metal, they can conduct electricity downwards, which power companies don’t want. As a result, insulators are used to separate the lines from the transformer’s edge.

A Transformer

A Transformer

Protected By Insulator Disks

Insulator disks in power plant transformers can also protect storms and electrical surges. You may have even witnessed power lines being struck by lightning and wondered what would happen. Thankfully, if there are insulators up there, you won’t have to worry about this.

Protected By Insulator Disks

Protected By Insulator Disks

Undeniably Spherical

However, it’s possible that you’re not near a transformer. And what you’re looking at isn’t a power line with a disk-shaped stack. No, what you’ve seen is undeniably spherical: a massive plastic ball suspended from the electrical wires above you. You could be gliding across a lake, driving through a canyon, or simply passing through your local airport.

Undeniably Spherical

Undeniably Spherical

Different Colors

These balls are also available in different colors. The go-to color was red at first, but experts eventually switched to bright orange as their default. Still, you might see crimson, yellow, or even white spheres. They also come in a variety of sizes, as previously mentioned.

Different Colors

Different Colors

200 Feet Apart

The balls are typically spaced 200 feet apart, though as you approach an airport, they may be closer together. All of these details hint at what these spherical additions to your local power lines are for. There’s one more ironic detail to consider about them.

200 Feet Apart

200 Feet Apart

Flying In A Helicopter

Surprisingly, the big power line spheres you see have to be attached to the wires in a death-defying manner. Even with the tallest cherry-picker, workers can’t always reach the lines. How do teams get to the top of the mountain? To attach the massive, brightly colored bead, they sometimes have to fly in a helicopter that hovers next to the cable long enough.

Flying In A Helicopter

Flying In A Helicopter

Suspending The Balls

As previously stated, these markers began to appear in the 1950s – at least according to one group of people. According to reports, states such as Florida and Arkansas began to suspend the balls from their power lines. Others claim the trend began 20 years later in Arkansas when the state’s governor flew and noticed something strange upon landing.

Suspending The Balls

Suspending The Balls

Winthrop Rockefeller

When Winthrop Rockefeller looked out the window of his plane, he allegedly noticed electrical cables near the craft. That should be enough to frighten anyone! Rockefeller was correct in believing that these live wires should be made more visible to pilots approaching the runway. As a result, the spheres began to appear as a warning to aviation professionals: stay away from the dangerous cables ahead.

Winthrop Rockefeller

Winthrop Rockefeller

Accident Over The South Platte River

Pilots in other states didn’t have the same warning system as Arkansas pilots – at least not as early. It even resulted in a disaster in one case. Colorado officials began installing the balls across their state’s famously rugged terrain at the end of the 1980s. Still, they didn’t do so quickly enough to avoid an accident over the South Platte River.

Accident Over The South Platte River

Accident Over The South Platte River

150-Foot-Long Steel Cable

In 1988, a news helicopter collided with a 150-foot-long steel cable dangling over the river. Sadly, that impact was sufficient to cause the vehicle to crash. There were also casualties, as a pair of journalists tragically died due to the tragic incident.

150 Foot Long Steel Cable

150 Foot Long Steel Cable

Warning Symbols

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can’t make it a requirement for every state to hang the colorful balls on their live wires, despite this and other accidents. Instead, the agency can only recommend that these warning symbols prevent fatal collisions between overhead aircraft.

Warning Symbols

Warning Symbols

Colliding With Live Wires

Helicopter pilots are also known to collide with live wires regularly. According to a 2003 report in FAAviation News, they frequently hit the cables for various reasons. “Dirty windscreens, light conditions, and the obscuring effects of terrain and changes in visual perspective that occur during climb and descent,” according to the report.

Colliding With Live Wires

Colliding With Live Wires

They Could Be In Danger

Furthermore, “accurately judging the helicopter’s distance from unmarked wires is nearly impossible,” according to the report. Even a pilot who takes the same route back and forth from the airport could be put in danger if the shape of the wires changes with the seasons, the color of the cables changes, or another optical illusion occurs.

They Could Be In Danger

They Could Be In Danger

Visibility Marker Balls

In the aviation field, there are some places where you’re more likely to see these spheres known as visibility marker balls. They hang out in places where planes and helicopters frequently fly low, such as canyons, mountain passes, valleys, and over freeways and near airports.

Visibility Marker Balls

Visibility Marker Balls

Specific Sizes And Colors

Besides that, the cables that zigzag across these areas must be marked with visibility marker balls. Otherwise, as planes descend, their pilots may not see the lines ahead of them. The FAA guidelines also specify why the balls should be available in specific sizes and colors.

Specific Sizes And Colors

Specific Sizes And Colors

Extra Large Spheres

The spheres that you see above lakes, rivers, and canyons are extra-large, as you may have guessed. In fact, the FAA requires that they be at least 36 inches wide. However, for power lines less than 50 feet in height, the smaller markers – 20-inch balls – are deemed adequate. The scaled-down versions can also be found at the end of airport runways.

Extra Large Spheres

Extra Large Spheres

Useful Indicators

When you look out the window of your plane, you’ll notice that the spheres are getting closer together as you approach the end of the runway. The distance between those markers is usually only 30 to 50 feet. As a result, they serve as useful indicators that the craft is approaching the tarmac’s edge.

Useful Indicators

Useful Indicators

Fire-Colored Spheres

Nevertheless, why are the visibility markers red? They’re well-placed because they can be seen against the sky! However, according to a later FAA study, orange is a more visible color for pilots. So, even if there are still exceptions, you’re more likely to see fire-colored spheres hanging from power lines these days.

Fire Colored Spheres

Fire Colored Spheres

Most Visible Color

In the end, the location of the markers will be determined by their surroundings. Local officials should choose the shade that makes them the most visible to pilots. And in the vast majority of cases, that hue will be bright orange.

Most Visible Color

Most Visible Color

Catching The Pilot’s Attention

If there are fewer than four balls on a wire, they should all be this garish shade of clementine. Longer wires with more balls, on the other hand, may benefit from a color pattern to ensure that at least one of them catches the pilot’s attention. The majority of these sequences alternate between orange, white, and yellow.

Catching The Pilot's Attention

Catching The Pilot’s Attention

Learning To Avoid Them

The visibility markers haven’t just saved the day in the air. The spheres had also helped steer geese away from dangerous live wires, according to a 1983 article from United Press International. Boat captains had also learned to avoid them, according to the article.

Learning To Avoid Them

Learning To Avoid Them

They Save Lives

That’s brilliant news for those in the aviation and boating industries, as well as those concerned about wildlife conservation. The enormous, brightly colored spheres that adorn your power lines serve a purpose: they save lives. And now, when you see them dangling from your city’s electrical cables in all their orange, red, yellow, or white glory, you can appreciate all they do.

They Save Lives

They Save Lives

Hidden Meaning

Even so, power line spheres aren’t the only colorful objects with a significant hidden meaning. Take, for example, the green lights that you might see outside of people’s houses. While they are colorful and appealing, they have nothing to do with Halloween. The reason why people have chosen this color to illuminate their homes is, as it turns out, much more poignant.

Hidden Meaning

Hidden Meaning

Attracting Trick-Or-Treaters

Green isn’t the most obvious color to use to light your home, so it’s fair to say it’s not the most obvious choice. And if you saw a house bathed in a ghoulish hue, you’d be forgiven for thinking the owner was attempting to attract trick-or-treaters. However, as previously mentioned, you’d be mistaken.

Attracting Trick Or Treaters

Attracting Trick Or Treaters

Expressing Support

Since 2015, a campaign has been trying to give the green light a special meaning. The goal is to use color to express support for a specific segment of society. People are also encouraged to put up green lights on their porches and persuade their friends and family to do so.

Expressing Support

Expressing Support

Green Light Campaign

An excerpt from a website dedicated to promoting the green light campaign informs readers about how they, too, can participate. Yes, it encourages people to “Change one light in a visible location in [their] home or office to green.” It then encourages people to turn on the emerald light every day – for the entire 24 hours.

Green Light Campaign

Green Light Campaign

Spreading Across The Country

Moreover, besides requesting that people display the correct-colored lamp, the campaign’s organizers want participants to spread the word about what they’re doing. “Inspire others to join the cause by taking a picture of your green light and sharing it on social media,” their website says. Another extract then asks people to log their efforts on maps, allowing them to see how many people are participating and how far it has spread across the country.

Spreading Across The Country

Spreading Across The Country

Installing Green Lights

As it turns out, the idea appears to have taken off. Many people have joined in over the years, installing green lights of various sizes and shapes on the front of their homes. Except for one emerald-colored lantern, some people kept their displays understated. On the other hand, others went all out, lighting up their whole houses in the grassy hue.

Installing Green Lights

Installing Green Lights

Online Acts Of Support

Participants shared photos of their efforts on social media as the campaign grew. Many of the photos ended up on a dedicated Facebook page, which had over 27,000 likes of November 2019. Meanwhile, a map depicting the location of the green lights revealed more than nine million “online acts of support” from across the country.

Online Acts Of Support

Online Acts Of Support

Raise Awareness

Of course, the green light campaign isn’t the first time that a non-profit has used social media to raise awareness for a good cause. That’s right; several charity campaigns have gone viral in recent years. All they had to do was capture the general public’s imagination and motivate them to participate.

Raise Awareness

Raise Awareness

The Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge from 2014 was one such viral moment, and as you may recall, it took the internet by storm. The activity required participants to douse themselves with a bucket of icy water while being filmed, as the name suggests. Following their soaking, they’d upload the video to social media and invite others to join them.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge

Raise Awareness Of ALS

But what was the point of the Ice Bucket Challenge in the first place? It was meant to raise awareness of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In July 2014, the activity began to receive widespread attention, and it quickly gained viral status. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos were shared 17 million times on Facebook in September 2014.

Raise Awareness Of ALS

Raise Awareness Of ALS

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