Right-of-Way Maintenance

Both Utilities and Customers Have Responsibilities

Jun 17th, 2013
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Both Utilities and Customers Have Responsibilities

By Paul Hull

There is plenty of equipment to help you meet your right-of-way challenges, but the main consideration might be to not let nature get ahead of you. No matter how diligent your plans for right-of-way maintenance might seem, nature is not going to wait. Ask any gardener. Nature brings out its buds, blossoms and branches when it's timely, not when you want it to. There are many utilities that can't maintain their rights-of-way on a year-round system because the weather won't let them. There are also many utilities that cannot complete the clearance of trees, shrubs and bushes in a single year because of the size of their territory. If the maintenance is left for a year, there are trees that can grow six feet or more in that time; sometimes those trees are the unplanted shoots from roots of trees that have been carefully trimmed the year before. Even if you cannot cope with the clearance of all vegetation as fast as it grows, somebody should be aware of what is growing and which areas of your territory seem to face the greatest intrusions. You may have to address some sectors more frequently than others because that is how nature works.

One customer message that seems to be sent too infrequently is that trees, shrubs and bushes that are planted too close to power lines are a threat to the service and safety of everybody in the neighborhood. In some places, 15 percent of power interruptions are caused by vegetation growing too close to the power lines. Customers have a responsibility to help their utilities in the right-of-way maintenance programs. I can recall two local incidents when neighbors planted trees too close to power poles, but they were never told to desist from that un-neighborly practice. One excuse was that the new trees were grandfathered where they were and could not be ideally managed. That was nonsense. The man who planted them may have been a grandfather, but he planted them stupidly because he didn't think and nobody told him. He also imagined he was the exception to every legal regulation. Ten years later, one of those trees is a menace to the power line that goes to the hospital. If trees and shrubs are dangerously planted, you must tell your customers. I don't know all the legal issues, but I cannot help believing that improperly planted vegetation must be illegal, whatever the social status of the planter.

I walked around several streets in the town where I live and was amazed by how many trees covered power lines-and had obviously done so for more than a year. Customers must be told of the dangers caused by trees. It's not only their obligation to know the rules, but somebody else-who better than their utility-should tell them. Most people like and enjoy trees, but the safety of a neighborhood must come before its appearance.

Some utilities provide a guide for their customers, a guide that shows different kinds of trees that can be attractive and safe. In a group we could call the low-height trees, you would find several kinds of maple, dogwoods, hawthorns, crabapples and some fruit trees. For good advice, consult an arborist-some utilities have one on staff-or your local nursery. For medium-height trees, you'll find other types of maple, other fruit trees-some grow up to 40 feet-hornbeams, ash and honey locust. In the tall-height group of trees, there will be the tallest maples, birches, beeches, locusts, larches, redwoods, lindens and some oaks. You will notice that maples appear in low, medium and tall groups; that's why it's so practical to consult a tree expert. A maple is not simply a maple. In what we might consider the safest group are the trees that are usually lower than 20 feet-but still attractive. In this group, you'll choose from almonds, some crabapples, some dogwoods, dwarf spruces, cherries, arrowwood and flowering plum. Why are there regulations about tree heights and how great is the danger? In 2003 a single tree made contact with transmission lines, and the result was a blackout for some 50 million customers in seven states. The relationship between trees and power lines is that important.

People can be in Danger, Too

While most publicity is given to trimming trees and shrubs, and to the control of fast-growing ground cover with herbicides, your customers should also be aware of the dangers of trees to people, especially children. If adventurous children climb trees-and it would seem natural and healthy if they do-those trees should not have branches that touch or cross power lines. If a child touches a tree that is in contact with an energizing line, it can create an instant tragedy-and it's not that difficult to do. When you climbed trees as a child, did you ever look up to make sure it was safe? Neither did I. Somebody must take responsibility for ensuring trees anywhere near power lines are safe, and it is not simply the utility's responsibility.

Many accidents with overhead wires happen innocently. It could be a homeowner reaching up with a long-handled tool to adjust something or to knock something out of a tree. Or, adults could be horsing around in the yard to celebrate a game's result. The celebrations will stop immediately if someone catches the energized line.

York Electric Cooperative (YEC) in South Carolina helps its customers recover from the trauma of having a favorite tree cut down for safety reasons. YEC has a Trade a Tree Program that helps members of the cooperative replace removed trees to ensure service reliability. YEC issues coupons to approved members to purchase replacement trees. The coupons are worth up to $150 and can be redeemed at local nurseries. A system like this makes good sense. It's better for the cooperative to replace trees than to keep cutting dangerous ones each year. Does your utility offer anything like that? Do your customers know about it?

Right-of-way problems can occur when there are unexpected storms. Power lines come down and there often is vegetation on the ground. Some damage is caused by large trees too close to the power lines. There are rules about close trees, but they may seem to have been overlooked-until a tall tree brings down poles and wires in a storm. Lines, poles and substation buildings usually are built to withstand most of nature's onslaughts, but they can be broken or wrecked by the fall of a large branch or tree. Storms can, of course, be hot or cold. An icy winter storm can cause as much damage to trees and power lines as the better known summer varieties.

As I previously mentioned, there is available equipment for meeting all your right-of-way maintenance challenges. Names such as Fecon and Jarraff immediately come to mind, but there are also attachments that will mount on equipment you already have. There are many good saws available-and tools that will trim the smaller branches. Remember, though, that every tool must be used by a skilled person. One of the best reasons for hiring experienced contractors to do some of your right-of-way maintenance is that they will be safer and faster than your own employees. Last summer I watched two crews working on trees. The difference was amazing. The experienced contractors worked swiftly and with total confidence. The utility men were less confident, with actions that were jerkier, and they were slower. I didn't blame them. If I was more than 20 feet in the air, wielding a chain saw that is made to cut anything that gets in its way, I'd be cautious and nervous.

Do it all safely. Have the best available people do the work. And don't expect praise or sympathy. Right-of-way maintenance is one of those jobs that few people notice or consider important-until it's not done. On behalf of those millions of customers who don't notice the vital work you do, thank you very much.

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