Members of a small rural church are thankful for an Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. construction crew who discovered a potentially dangerous stray voltage issue while building distribution lines through timber country south of Little Rock over the summer.

“The crew was upgrading service lines and, in the process, a piece of wire touched a church storage shed and arced, alerting members of the crew that there was a problem,” said Kelly Goins, maintenance supervisor at C&L Electric Cooperative Corp.

The AECI crew handles construction projects for many distribution co-ops in Arkansas and several other nearby states, so they immediately contacted Star City-based C&L Electric, and the co-op informed Lost Creek Missionary Baptist Church of the hazard.

“I didn't want a kid or someone with a pacemaker to walk up on it and get hurt,” said AECI Construction Foreman Joe Fowler.

“The preacher, electrician and a C&L Electric employee came out to the church,” Fowler said. We stayed with them and helped them diagnose the problem.”

Stray voltage can occur when underground electric lines are improperly installed or maintained, allowing for transmission of electric current between two or more points, energizing structures and posing potential risks of minor shocks, serious injury or death.

Utility industry analysts estimate that at least 1,500 such incidents occur in the United States each year. A study produced by an industry vendor projects that up to 250,000 structures nationwide are energized by stray voltage originating from underground conductor typically transferred between neutral ground wires.

“A member of the crew leaned against the shed and felt a minor shock,” said Scott Sander, director of corporate safety for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. and AECI. “Meter readings taken at the site showed a good amount of voltage present, so Fowler contacted the co-op and brought it to the attention of church leaders.”

The situation could have resulted in more serious problems had it not been reported and repaired.

“The church recently had some electrical work done, and it was wired incorrectly,” said Fowler. “We just didn't want anything to happen and anyone to get hurt.”

While low voltage can cause minor shocks, it raises health concerns for those with heart problems or other medical conditions managed with implants or monitoring devices. Stray voltage issues are often discovered after people experience shocks at swimming pools, marinas or community ballfields.

Stray voltage on farms and ranches can alter animal behavior, making them avoid water troughs and feed bins even when exposure is limited to less than 10 volts. It stresses animals, stifling growth and reducing egg and milk production, and it also can contribute to disease and livestock deaths.

Stray voltage can be transferred to any grounded object in a building, said Sander. “We all need to be aware of the problem because of its potential to cause harm to people and animals. Proper wiring periodically inspected and maintained by licensed electricians reduces risks and can help prevent problems before they occur.”