Lines and Limits

Utility lines require safety and security for long life

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Utility lines require safety and security for long life

It’s so easy to concentrate on just one aspect of a task or assignment. When it comes to line construction and maintenance, there are many aspects to consider, many alternatives to evaluate, and many techniques to adopt, if we are to make this essential part of our utility performance good for the customers and profitable for ourselves.

Take the poles. One of my neighbors commented the other day that he would not like the responsibility of replacing the poles (and all the equipment attached to them) along the alley across the street from his house. His suggestion was that our utility put everything underground when they have to replace existing structures. (He also has no concept of how much that would cost, even in a small town.) The poles for our community are wooden. Some have been standing tall and strong for years, despite many hostile summer and winter storms, and some are not looking too healthy.

All poles for electric power do not have to be wooden. RStandard composite utility structures are modular and their manufacturer says they require no maintenance and will last up to 80 years. The poles resist corrosion and damage caused by animals, birds and insects. Such innovations in pole construction could have a significant effect on your construction and maintenance budget and may seem ideal especially for those remote and backlot installations that have traditionally caused headaches. What does their description “modular” imply? RStandard poles are configured with shorter and lighter lengths, which makes them easier and less expensive to store (on the ground, too, because they will not rot). A worker can put a length on his shoulder and carry it that way at the site. The lengths (modules) of pole nest inside each other; that saves space, too. Safety? The poles are non-conductive and need no toxic coatings. In dielectric testing (ASTM D14-9) on the resin, the dielectric strength was shown to be 325 volts/mil of thickness. In other words, with the smallest pole thickness of 280 mils it equates to an insulating value of 97.5 kV.

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If you have to stay with wooden poles, you can still make them last longer and even correct problems that have already started without replacement of the pole. In some states, woodpeckers are the enemies of utility poles. If only there were something that made the poles less tasty for the feathered attackers, they might go elsewhere for their snacks and entertainment. ICORP, based in Sanford, Florida, has developed a product called I-Foam that can repair the damage and enable the pole to last, probably, another decade. Users have said that they can repair a pole (and its system) for about $500, as opposed to as much as $20,000 for an alternative solution.

Keeping the Way Clear

It’s not just squirrels, woodpeckers and insects that attack the utility lines. By the natural urge to expand, all kinds of vegetation can grow over, around, up, and against the lines that must be kept clear. The problem is probably bigger in parts of our country where vegetation grows most freely and there are utility companies who have crews working on maintenance of the right-of-way all the time. Much of that work is done by contractors, whose expertise is exactly what a utility needs. Not all the contractors are small, local companies. We know of one that has 2,000 employees and more than 2,500 pieces of equipment to cover several states. An immediate response to that is the question: If they cover more than a few local communities, how do they transport everything quickly to the right place? Time must be of the essence in right-of-way work. For much of the driving you may require CDL drivers – not always readily available, as you may have already discovered. An interesting solution has been the use of the Retriever. It’s a transport bed (from UP-N-ATOM, Inc. in Waukesha, Wisconsin). It has a hinged deck with a unique curve, powered by the truck’s own air system. There are no hydraulics required to load heavy equipment like the tractors used to mow brush. Users say that tractors can be loaded and chained within five minutes, giving speed to the maintenance crews, and improving productivity.

Storms and hurricanes don’t select the places they strike with any thought for the utilities involved. Access to damaged infrastructure can be a difficult, time-consuming problem if you don’t have the right equipment available. “Available” could mean it is a machine available to rent or one kept ready for special use in your main utility fleet. We saw the story of a situation in Ohio where access to primary conductors was denied by the very terrain where they stood. The equipment needing repair was enmeshed in dense undergrowth – roses, thorny plants and black locusts. The workers could not get in. The power company called in a machine called a Bull Hog (from Fecon) and it cleared within four hours what would have taken two or three days with traditional methods. The Bull Hog has a mulching head (instead of a circulating blade) that drives cuttings of trees and brush into the ground.... safely for everybody around.

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Another series of machine that has earned respect in utility work is often called the Jarraff. Its correct name is the Jarraff All-Terrain Tree Trimmer and that title describes its function well. One man who owns one, Mike Burford of Burford’s Tree, Inc. in Anniston, Alabama, reminds us that our projects are driven by timelines. “We try to be the most productive for our customer,” observes Burford. “We’re always trying to reduce overall cost, whether it’s per mile, per job or per project.” Burford has 25 4-wheel-drive Jarraffs in his fleet, as well as 250 aerial lifts. On many ROW jobs (and the company has one that covers more than 3,500 miles), the company sends the Jarraffs in first and follows it with the aerial trucks. “One Jarraff will outperform five lift truck crews,” adds Burford. This cutter has a 75’ boom to cut the highest branches and can reach over power lines. It has a turntable base that gives a 360-degree range of motion and a 40-degree lateral tilt.


You may have local contractors whom you trust to do a good job whenever you need them. Many utilities in North America enjoy that knowledge. Much of the right-of-way work and line maintenance is done by contractors who have made themselves experts in the particular skills that utilities require.

One such company that springs to mind is ASPLUNDH (often referred to as a difficult name for an excellent company!) and now that company has formed UtiliCon Solutions to provide a broad range of services to utility companies. One of the company’s subsidiaries is Utility Pole Technologies, Inc. (UPT) and that name describes its work. UPT will inspect your poles (a critical task that must be done regularly) and will bring remedies where needed. That might include remedial treatment with fungicides or preservatives, or even reinforcements for poles with fiberglass wraps and steel channels. UPT can do attachment surveys, and install ground rods and guy wire guards. GPS locating and infrared scanning are other services offered. Another company of UtiliCon Solutions, named Asplundh Environmental Services, can solve problems for you with the whole gamut of the Asplundh organization to help. When disaster strikes, this group can accomplish emergency road clearance, temporary staging for debris, reduction of debris, hazardous materials handling and site remediation. It can also help a utility before any disaster, with planning and training.

Safety is constantly on the mind of anybody who does utility work, safety for the workers and safety for everybody else, too. One of the most simple and most effective safety devices we have seen is the yellow rubber blanket. It’s so flexible that it can be wrapped around awkwardly-shaped equipment and structures to give protection to workers against those accidents sometimes called step-and-touch and its distinctive color is itself a warning. These blankets should be inspected frequently and tested at least once a year for their efficiency. They should be stored in containers to keep them away from the damage caused by loose wires and sharp objects at the site. A rubber blanket is an excellent protective device, but not if it is allowed to be torn, holed, punctured or eroded.

Safety is a constant consideration in utility work, not just when electricity is involved but for telecommunications, too. Training for the right way to do any work that is performed from the bucket of an aerial lift truck – for the person at the top and everybody on the ground – is of paramount importance. The usual effect of an accident is not just the sprained ankle, broken arm, or injured pride. The downtime, insurance ramifications, and all those hidden costs that seem to emerge only when there is an accident to an employee or damage to somebody else’s structure, magnify the importance of sound training and safe work.

Line construction and maintenance, without which our jobs would not exist, are complicated tasks, but there seem to be equipment and techniques for making them safe, profitable, and durable. Our time spent on researching what is new and possibly helpful in any aspect of line construction and maintenance is surely time wisely spent.

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