Natural gas service in Southwest Florida was shut down Thursday because there is only one line in which to route the fuel’s flow through most of Lee and Collier counties.
When it was severed by a construction worker, it carried a multimillion-dollar price tag and sent another dagger into the hearts of business owners struggling to stay afloat in the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Gas, which powers everything from dryers to water heaters to residential and commercial ovens, was turned off when the main supply pipe that runs from the Caloosahatchee River in northern Lee County to Fiddler’s Creek in southern Collier County was hit by a road worker.
Lance Horton, a senior project manager with Tampa-based TECO who headed up the building of the system in the late 1990s, said Saturday alternate supply lines have not been built.
“There is yet no redundancy,” Horton said. “As systems go, this one is immature.”
Gas service to this area began in 1998.
“We don’t have ways to reroute the gas as yet,” he said. “Those will come based on customer growth.”
Horton said in older systems – such as in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Miami that have used natural gas for almost 100 years – time has allowed TECO to develop work-around routes so only small sections of homes and businesses are affected if there is a line break.
In a newly developed area such as Southwest Florida, building alternate routes where there are few customers is usually cost-prohibitive.
“Since the system is originally designed based on where the customers are located,” said TECO spokesman Rick Morera, “it is difficult and costly to build redundancy not knowing the direction of future growth.”
Area businesses continued to suffer Saturday.
“My business was barely surviving in this grim economy,” said Mike Lavin, owner of Gulf Gate Laundry in Naples. “It is possible this shutdown will do me in.”
For some, though, better times were at hand.
Service to the company’s highest priority customers – hospitals and elder care centers – was restored Friday night. By Saturday evening, crews working 15-hour shifts, had an estimated 500 users up and running.
And Morera said “work in the Fort Myers Beach and downtown areas has gone well.”
For others, however, it could take the better part of a week before gas service resumes.
Restoring service is a complicated and lengthy process, Horton said. It includes a representative visiting each customer.
“Our goal is one visit. That’s a tough objective,” he said. “A business might be closed and we can’t get in touch with them. Or someone’s not home. That’s why it takes a week to get all the service back.”
Those visits include turning the gas off at the meter, turning it back on and reigniting a pilot light.
“We work on a mandated protocol for safety,” he said. “We don’t want our customers turning the gas on or off.”
TECO’s assault on the problem resembles, in many ways, how a utility company goes about getting the lights back on following a hurricane.
The company has set up a large staging area at its Fort Myers headquarters just west of Interstate 75 near Luckett Road. More than 200 technicians and repair personnel have come from all over Florida to help.
Horton said the trouble here has not presented insurmountable problems.
“All situations are unique,” Horton said, “and all are similar. You have different geographics, and in this situation, it is a little more difficult because our 7,200 customers are spread out across 50 miles.
“But we know what to do, and how to handle it.”