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Silent Sentinels


Electric co-op power poles remain the key to safe, reliable and affordable electricity


Inc. (WQC), a subsidiary of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. WQC estimates co-ops are responsible for a quarter to a third of the nation’s annual wood pole production.


Each year, electric co-ops spend roughly $300 million to purchase close to 1 million wood poles and 2 million crossarms—a whopping 20 to 33 percent of a co-op’s annual materials budget. WQC works closely with co-ops to make sure they invest in high-quality poles that meet strict federal Rural Utilities Service standards.


Double Duty


Not only do poles support the nation’s power system; telecommunication companies often rent space on poles to attach telephone and cable wires.


BY MEGAN MCKOY-NOE NATIONAL RURAL ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE ASSOCIATION


T


he path of power to your home is guarded by silent sentinels—utility poles―that are under constant attack by Mother Nature and, sometimes, by people.


Nationwide, electric cooperatives own and maintain 2.5 million miles of line stretching across three-quarters of the U.S. landmass. With some 20 wood poles per mile of distribution line, electric co-ops rely on more than 41 million poles to deliver power to your home.


Pole Patterns


Utility poles take several forms: concrete, steel, ductile iron, composite fiberglass, and—overwhelmingly, wood. Steel and composite fiberglass poles claim a longer lifespan, but most have not been in service long enough to test this claim. They also


cost at least twice as much. Combined with a proven service life that can span decades, treated wood poles offer the most affordable choice for most co-ops.


Electric cooperatives are responsible for a quarter to a third of the nation’s annual wood pole production.


For utilities battling copper crime, ductile iron poles offer an advantage by eliminating the need for copper grounding wires. But these poles aren’t as easy to climb, and could pose a problem if not easily accessible by bucket truck.


“Co-ops expect poles to last at least 40 years in the field, barring unpreventable storm damage and other accidents,” stresses Jim Carter, executive vice president for Wood Quality Control,


Each pole, averaging a height of 40 feet, breaks down into three zones. At the top, the supply space shuttles electricity from generation plants and substations to homes and businesses. A crossarm—the beam fixed horizontally across the top of the pole—generally divides the supply space from the middle space, called a safe zone. The safe zone forms a barrier between lines carrying high-voltage electricity and the area rented to other utilities.


Hazardous Mission


Wood poles battle a wide array of adversaries: acidic soil in the Midwest, heavy moisture in the South, and woodpeckers in the Mid-Atlantic. Utilities inspect poles on a 10- to 12-year cycle to spot potential problems. Around 2 to 3 percent of aging and decaying poles are replaced every year.


Natural decay, storm damage, and bird and bug attacks aren’t the only concerns. People shorten a pole’s lifespan, too.


The National American Wood Council estimates 5 percent of poles replaced annually are broken by car accidents. Attaching signs, basketball hoops, birdhouses, and other items will also shorten a pole’s lifespan, and create safety hazards for lineworkers. ■


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