At the One $ Store on Mission and 17th streets, anyone can buy foil balloons filled with helium for a buck, but customers get what they paid for — just the balloon.
At least four other stores across the city offer the customer the same deal: Buy the inflated metal globes and decide for yourself if you want to spend 50 cents to $5 for weights to prevent them from floating into live wires, becoming energy conductors and causing thousands of dollars in damage.
Giving customers that choice, however, has been illegal since 1990, when the state made it mandatory to sell the metal balloons tethered to weights.
Despite the law, many balloons still escape and fly into live wires, creating sparks, fires and property damage, said PG&E spokeswoman Cynthia Pollard.
“It is difficult to estimate repair costs associated with an outage caused by a Mylar balloon,” said Pollard. “In addition to utility costs, you must also factor in the losses on the customer side — both residential and commercial — resulting from outages.”
In 2009, PG&E experienced a total of 198 sustained outages caused by metallic balloons, affecting more than 111,000 customers for more than 161,000 hours.
When one collides with live wires, PG&E’s automatic safety switches power down, triggering an outage. Sometimes the power flux can also cause lines to fall, which prolongs the blackout, according to PG&E.
Since 1990, California has required sellers to attach metallic balloons to an appropriate weight to stop flyaway balloons. First- and second-time violators face a fine of $100, and repeat offenders face a misdemeanor charge.
But that’s news to some San Francisco balloon purveyors. In a survey of neighborhood balloon sellers, including one major balloon vendor and two dollar stores on Mission Street, none required foil balloons to be attached and sold with weights. Despite the law, all charged separately for the weights.
At the Balloon Place at 2708 Mission Street, for example, weights cost an additional 50 cents and are optional.
At the dollar stores on 2100 and 2665 Mission Street, weights cost an additional dollar.
This oversight is not limited to the Mission. In a survey of four other stores across San Francisco, half sold the weights separately.
A few miles north of the Mission, a 50-something man worked on a flower arrangement behind the counter of Fillmore Florist. Packaged metal balloons hung from a display next to the counter. They can be purchased and inflated, the man said. “Obviously, a balloon without helium doesn’t mean anything.”
“We don’t have weights at all,” he said. When asked for a name and a reason no weights were included with a purchase, he said: “Have a nice day.”
“That’s just the way it’s done,” said Justin, an employee at Cliff’s Variety hardware store in the Castro, where metallic balloons are sold for $2 to $5, but weights are sold separately for $3.29.
Within the last three months, three preventable power outages occurred in San Francisco, adding up to thousands of dollars in damage. The most recent in the Mission District occurred August 28 on Mission Street, affecting 6,500 PG&E customers, local businesses that had to be shuttered for hours, and Muni riders on buses that lost power.
An estimated 17,600 people were affected by all three outages. In all instances the cause was the same: foil balloons caught in power lines.
Kenneth Siu of the Fresh Meat Market estimated that the Mission Street outage, which lasted no more than two hours, cost him $1,000 in lost customers when he had to close the shop down.
Similar incidents can be caused by birds and small animals coming in contact with the lines. Pollard noted that branches can also cause outages and fires, but “PG&E has a comprehensive vegetation management program which aggressively trims trees to prevent them from coming into contact with our lines.”
Two years ago, backed by PG&E and the California Municipal Utilities Association, state Senator Jack Scott attempted to pass a bill that would effectively ban foil balloon sales in California. The bill cited Mylar balloons as “one of the leading causes of power outages in numerous cities throughout the state.”
“It was a draconian response,” said Pete McDonough, spokesperson for the Balloon Council, the balloon trade organization that opposed the bill.
The Balloon Council’s official opposition to the bill in a 2008 senate analysis concluded: “Apparently, there is not one case in which the cost of the outage exceeded $20,000 because, of the roughly 6,000 annual power outages, the CPUC reports none attributable to metallic balloons.”
The bill would negatively impact small businesses, gift shops and grocery stores, McDonough said.
“There are tens of thousands of balloon retailers in America.”
McDonough noted that balloon sales in California generate nearly $1 billion a year, including sales of peripheral items like gift baskets, flower bouquets and stuffed animals that often are attached to balloons.
The bill that would have banned metallic balloon sales in January 2010 was ultimately discarded by Governor Schwarzenegger in a generic veto during California’s 2008 budget impasse.
“There are thousands and thousands of [power] outages a year,” McDonough argued, “but only a handful of those are related to balloons.”
Still, caution is a priority when handling foil balloons, McDonough said. The Balloon Council has started a consumer education program that balloon vendors can participate in, and so far about 1,200 vendors have signed up, committing to post signs and educate their customers on good balloon care and proper disposal.
McDonough noted that most metal balloon distributors include flyers with information about the law in their balloon shipments.
For small gift shops and specialty stores, McDonough said, it’s fairly easy to inform both seller and customer of the balloon laws. He hypothesized that the law often gets lost at larger retailers — like dollar stores in the Mission.
“If it’s a large grocery chain with several hundred people who work in the store, we don’t know how well the word has moved through the store. You’ve got employees who come and go in stores like that.”
Still, some larger stores are the exception. At Ace Standard 5 and 10 at 3545 California Street, employee Stephen Simpson said his job training heavily emphasized balloon law. Employees at Ace Standard tie the balloons to weights included with the purchase before handing them to customers. Buyers can also purchase more expensive, fancier weights separately.
“They will short out the power if we don’t tie them on,” he said. “This was drilled into me during my training.”
When informed what the fine was for not attaching the weights, he was surprised. “I thought it would be more because of the cost [from damages].”
In Noe Valley, One Stop Party Shop owner Mardie Vandervort doesn’t cite the law, but she does include tiny fishing weights when customers purchase her metal balloons, which are offered in a variety of shapes, from the standard circle to cats and dogs. “We give you the weight,” Vandervort said, referring to bell-shaped weights that come with bulk purchases of helium balloons.
Employees at downtown’s SF Party, and closer to the Mission at Plaza Flowers and Balloons in the Potrero Center, also cited the law when asked if balloons come included with weights.
Beyond employee education, McDonough said consumers must also do their part to prevent runaway balloons.
“Just like any other product, they need to be disposed of properly.” He suggested that balloons should be punctured before being discarded, should never be released into the atmosphere, and should always be tied to a weight. Additionally, children should be supervised while playing with balloons.
In short, McDonough said, “Use balloons responsibly.”