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Damaged wires are surveyor's specialty

Power Survey carves its niche in identifying systems damaged by storms, time

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'Every night, we find cable that has been chewed away or corroded by salt,' says Tom Catanese. Wiring damaged in such fashion was called the culprit behind Seaside's boardwalk fire.
'Every night, we find cable that has been chewed away or corroded by salt,' says Tom Catanese. Wiring damaged in such fashion was called the culprit behind Seaside's boardwalk fire. - (COURTESY POWER SURVEY)

Boardwalks always have been susceptible to fires.

Still, the mayor of one Shore town said the blaze that ripped through the boardwalk and dozens of businesses in Seaside several weeks ago was “a wake-up call” because of its cause — electrical wiring corroded and compromised by salt water.

Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr., called for an inspection of his town's boardwalk this week.

"We're going to make sure that everything that's under there is either being used and brought up to code, or not being used and taken out," Troiano said. "We'd probably be doing (the survey) if it wasn't for the fire, but we probably wouldn't be doing it now."

Tom Catanese, the founder, president and CEO of Power Survey — a Kearny company that scans the streets of cities for faulty wiring that creates a public danger — said any business that took on seawater from Sandy should follow Wildwood's lead.

Catanese said the fire in Seaside wasn't the first post-Sandy electrical problem to pop up, and it won't be the last.

"That salt just wreaks havoc on cable insulation," he said.

His company has clients around the world. And while he does not currently work in any New Jersey municipalities, Catanese said he's finding such issues in another Sandy-ravaged location — New York City.

"Every night, we find cable that has been chewed away or corroded by salt," he said. "And not just salt: water and the elements, vibration and age."

Much of Catanese's business, unfortunately, comes after tragedy strikes. In fact, the business was born after the untimely death of a doctoral student in Manhattan. The woman was walking her dogs in 2004 when she came in contact with an electrified metal plate hiding the frayed and deteriorating wiring inside a utility box. The shock killed her.

At the time, Catanese was working out of the SRI Sarnoff labs, in Princeton. The utility company in New York asked him to help officials there figure out how to find problems like these before they do harm.

It took two years of research and development, but Catanese eventually developed a truck-mounted system that can be used to scan the streets and surrounding public areas for electrical malfunctions.

Power Survey now has a fleet of 50 or so pickup trucks — all fitted with technology that can detect contact voltage from about 30 feet away — that patrol the streets of a city at no more than 25 miles per hour.

"We effectively sweep the streets, like Pac-Man," Catanese said. "We're finding stuff every single night that's energized at lethal levels and that's accessible to the public."

Power Survey has grown from eight employees to more than 100. It hits the streets of New York once a month, and has contracts in Canada and Europe, in addition to more than 40 U.S. cities. His customers typically are utilities and municipalities, and contracts range from tens of thousands of dollars to several million.

To date, Power Survey has found more than 100,000 contact voltage faults for its customers — a number even Catanese calls "kind of startling."

"It's a problem that we're seeing crop up more and more as the infrastructure ages," he said.

Sandy-corroded wiring will also keep that number climbing. That's why Catanese advises homeowners and businesses who took on water during the storm to have their wiring inspected and possibly replaced.

After all, the Seaside fire is not necessarily a freak occurrence.

Rodney Morweiser owns Grove Street Bicycles, in Jersey City, which took on 3 feet of sewage water during the storm, despite the fact that his business is not located in a flood zone.

Since Morweiser wasn't expecting a flood, he left a laptop plugged in on a desk when he packed up the day of the storm. After Sandy hit, he came back to find the laptop had melted.

"That could have been a lot worse," Morweiser said.

So when the shop looked to rebuild, most of the wiring throughout the building was replaced.

"We were fully underwater, so we didn't want to trust anything," he said. "We don't have any worries there."

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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