Right-of-Way Maintenance- What Utilities Should Know

Profiled in May 2007 of Utility Products, right-of-way (ROW) maintenance company Apple Tree Service continues to grow-despite today's economic climate.

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Profiled in May 2007 of Utility Products, right-of-way (ROW) maintenance company Apple Tree Service continues to grow-despite today's economic climate. Having expanded its equipment fleet and grown its service area, the tree trimming company's territory primarily covers Arkansas, Oklahoma, northeastern Texas, northern Louisiana, western Mississippi and southern Missouri. While its territory has essentially remained the same, Apple Tree Service's work has grown within that territory.

"The company is always on the lookout for specific kinds of new work," said Bill Camplain, operations manager for Apple Tree Service. "We are always looking for new business, but in doing so, we're not just looking for short-term contracts or short-term relationships. What we're looking for are long-term relationships that fit Apple Tree Service and fit that utility. If it's not a fit, we explain that to them."

"Hiring, training and retaining skilled employees are also key components to Apple Tree Service's success," Camplain said. "Each employee is required to go through an extensive in-house training program that includes various training modules and testing programs." Employees are trained for different facets of the job. And, in order for Apple Tree Service to provide long-term relationships with its customers, the company ensures it has long-term relationships with its employees.

Hiring, training and retaining skilled employees are also key components to Apple Tree Service's success in the economic climate.

The majority of Apple Tree Service's customers are on a tree trimming cycle and understand the value it brings.

"Depending on the size of the utility, every three to five years is a common cycle for trimming an entire system," Camplain said. "The benefits for a utility are significant, but foresight is required to quantify those benefits."

"As a whole, tree trimming is typically the first budget to be cut," Camplain said. "But everyone we work for has taken a stand and realizes the benefits from maintaining their ROWs-long term benefits. There are many utilities that have yet to start a tree trimming cycle and have yet to realize how much money they'll spend later to maintain their lines because of that.

"The first thing utilities need to ask themselves is what their long-term goals are in terms of their system. What do they want to do? Are they looking for long-term benefits or short-term fixes. Every utility has its own concept of what its ROW should look like. If they're not asking how often they want to trim their entire system, they will eventually realize all they're really doing is putting band-aids on the system."

The benefits of maintaining a system on a cycle can be significant. While the cost of beginning a ROW maintenance cycle are higher at the onset, once a utility has completed the first one, costs drop and savings increase as utilities mitigate potential problems to the system and increase response time to incidents when they occur.

Depending on the size of the utility, every three to five years is a common cycle for trimming an entire system. The benefits for a utility are significant.

"Not only do the prices become cheaper, but now they don't have the overtime costs because, in the middle of the night after a storm, their service men are not out there as often or as long," Camplain said. "They are now able to identify their problem much quicker than before. It's no longer 10 spans of line that are the problem; it is one tree that fell from outside the ROW across the line. Now, when the service man goes there, he can actually see down that line and see where the problem exists."

"The old saying, you get what you pay for, is true in about 95 percent of all cases involving bidding ROW maintenance work," Camplain said. Camplain warns that if the price quoted for a ROW maintenance service seems to good to be true, it probably is. And utilities should dig a little deeper into the company quoting the work. Ask for references. Find out what their plan is, and find out what their crew and equipment compliment is. If they're not equipped for the job, there will be trouble.

Apple Tree Service is counted on by its customers to be ready to help after storms and natural disasters. One difference is that Apple Tree Service doesn't let the weather change its core beliefs. They don't chase storms for the work. They do, however, provide their existing contracts with assistance and advice when natural disasters occur.

"We pay attention to the weather first and foremost and start preparing ahead of time," Camplain said. "It's much better to be prepared and have nothing happen than not being able to come to the aid of whoever contacts you. We're able to mobilize, not only from where we're contracted, but we'll send crews from other contracts that aren't affected. Many times we'll end up staging them if we know a certain location is going to be missed altogether. We'll contact our contracts that are unaffected and let them know we may have to help the affected areas. We can then mobilize and stage equipment and crews in anticipation of the coming storms."

While utilities have their own idea of what they need in terms of help or equipment, each storm situation needs to be evaluated individually.

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