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Why Are Utility Poles Made of Wood?

As the kids' endless summer vacation enters its final days (pretty soon, the ever-shrinking school year will be just a few weeks in October, January and May), my offspring were hanging out at home the other day during the rains of Ernesto when suddenly, they heard a loud bang.

The sound came from out in front of the house and when they looked out the window, they saw flashes of fire shooting off the electrical wires, live wires flopping down onto the sidewalk, and the utility pole across the street engulfed in flames. This was more live action than anything could possibly provide. My daughter called 911 and was pleased to find that actual D.C. fire engines responded in just five minutes, which is pretty good considering the extremely low expectations we've come to have in the years since our local fire station was shut down. (Neighborhood historic preservation radicals bent on keeping remnants of an outmoded fire station have combined with incompetent contracting officials in the city bureaucracy to deprive the area of a firehouse for more than four years.)

The fire was put out quickly, police cordoned off the dangerous area within minutes, and eventually Pepco showed up to deal with the downed wires. But the question remained: Why is it exactly that the utility poles that hold up electrical distribution wires are made of wood?

There are 134 million utility poles in this country, and the great majority of them are made of timber that has been painted with chemicals that supposedly prevent or retard fire. Judging from the big flames outside our house, it's hard to say that that system is terribly effective.

Wood's primary competitors in the utility pole industry are steel and composite materials that can include wood, plastic or concrete. Steel is lighter and sturdier and more fire-proof, but carries concerns about grounding and conductivity. Environmental studies have concluded that despite the intial attraction of alternatives to wood, as well as worries that the utility pole industry is a bad guy in the depletion of forest resources, it may well be that wood poles use less energy over time than do steel poles.

Some cities and utilities have moved toward steel poles, primarily to hold down costs. But wood remains the industry standard and some linemen remain suspicious of steel because of conductivity questions. Bottom line: Wood seems to be here to stay.

By Marc Fisher |  September 5, 2006; 7:41 AM ET
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Marc, in much of Europe the poles are made of concrete. Man, are they ugly. Plus, you can't staple lost pet flyers to them, and the utility workers can't climb them with spikes and a belt.

Posted by: John | September 5, 2006 8:51 AM

How about ridding the landscape of all types of poles and burying utility lines instead? Certainly more aesthetically pleasing albeit more costly. It could reduce storm-related power outages but those reductions could be cancelled out by work crews accidentally severing buried lines. Pros and cons to each approach, I suppose...

Posted by: Ffx | September 5, 2006 9:15 AM

I worked for a utility company for many years. Initial cost, installation cost, maintenance cost are all factors, but so are the locations of the poles - you don't want concrete poles beside the road where a car might hit it, and you want poles that will not stick out like sore thumbs visually any more than they have to (so those green aluminum poles might go through wooded areas, for instance). As far as undergrounding - installation and maintenance are all much more expensive than overhead lines, plus the dig-in problem, the degredation over time you can't see to fix, etc. Your bill would go up accordingly, too - how much do you want to pay for?

Posted by: MLBR | September 5, 2006 10:21 AM

it would be great to bury the power lines, but since all our funds for infrastruture are going to rebuild the countries blown up by our bombs, i guess we must endure.

Posted by: de nada | September 5, 2006 10:27 AM

How are concrete poles any uglier than wood poles? Paint the concrete brown to resemble one will even care or notice, I bet.

Posted by: Dan | September 5, 2006 11:16 AM

I think the best argument against burying lines is, when a tree falls on a power line above ground, at least you can see it and know where the crews need to get to work. But if something happens underground, like water damage or an overzealous mole or whatever happens down there, it could be anywhere.

Posted by: h3 | September 5, 2006 12:26 PM

I'd like to see if some plastic decking company like Trex in Winchester, VA could come up with a telephone pole. Recycled wood and plastic content, colored dark just as the wood poles are now, and soft enough to use the spikes to climb. And no noxious chemical treatment needed to prevent insect damage.

Posted by: SJM | September 5, 2006 12:27 PM

Why wouldn't you make them out of wood? The pine trees grow under solar power, require practically no fertilizer, minimal pesticide and are easily replanted. Soaked in creosote, they are extremely durable. It's as ideal a solution as one is likely to find in the real world.

BTW, Ezra Cornell, founder of the eponymous University, made his fortune on telegraph poles.

Posted by: Hugh Price | September 5, 2006 1:02 PM

It would be great to get the lines buried. Then maybe we could put an end to the awful hacking of our trees on streets that would otherwise be wooded. That would cut down on excess energy consumption, particularly on hot days, and thus cut electricity rates for peak production.

Plus it would look a lot better.

Posted by: NW | September 5, 2006 1:37 PM

Polymer composite poles are expensive but coming down in price. See the attached web site for one fine example

Posted by: Carol | September 5, 2006 1:53 PM

In downtown DC where I live my power hasn't gone out since at least the early 90's, and my lines are all buried. It just makes sense to install utility conduits whenever a street is being reconstructed. Overhead power, tele, or cable are vulnerable and downright ugly to look at. Andy Rooney (who I usually can't stand) had a great segment this weekend about them.

Posted by: Mark | September 5, 2006 2:14 PM

"In downtown DC where I live my power hasn't gone out since at least the early 90's, and my lines are all buried."

Yup, no loss of power - just a few exploding manhole covers once in a while.

Ain't no cure-all.

Posted by: Me | September 5, 2006 3:27 PM

I've heard many reasons why the lines didn't used to get burried. One is land easments, another is the lines didn't last underground(since resolved), and many now are burying more then one line and then can switch to the other. The benefit is they can work on a non-hot line!! Unfortunately the writer lives in a older community with much older services, go to a newer community and you will see that they are buried now.

FYI, I think your statistics are based off what you see. Go to florida and you will see many, many, concrete poles.

Posted by: JF | September 5, 2006 3:28 PM

I suppose this meets the contractual obligation to write "something" today.

Let's see, there're elections in every jurisdiction, there's a Post endorsement of a candidate they think isn't as ready to serve as his opponent whose qualifications are actually cited more in the endorsement, the real estate market continues to soften, war wages on, and it's the first day of school all over the area.

I know let's write about utility poles.....

Posted by: CW | September 5, 2006 4:17 PM

I would love to see a study of power outages in areas with utility poles vs. areas with buried power lines. If the lifecycle cost would include the costs of businesses and homes not having power for months to a year, maybe it would make sense to put 'em all underground. That, and they're ugly.

Posted by: MJM | September 5, 2006 4:25 PM

Yeah, there's been a few manholes that have blown off the street- but I never lost power 'cause of it, though parts of West End and G'Town did... Anyway, I'd say the exploding manhole thing is a sewer/stormwater issue more than anything else. I was advocating for dedicated utility conduits, you'll recall.

Posted by: Mark | September 5, 2006 4:32 PM

I agree with CW.

Posted by: hogboss | September 5, 2006 4:34 PM

Concrete weighs in around 150 pounds a cubic foot (rebar affects this pretty negligably). So figure an 8 inch diamter pole, about 20 feet tall, with 2-3 feet in the ground connected to the footing.

Roughly (by my quick calculator check) about 8 cubic feet of concrete per pole, or about 1200 pounds of it. Now, were a decent sized vehicle, lets take as an example the metrobus that took out the power pole in front of the restaurant I used to work for, and give it the benefit of the doubt for breaking it off around 2 feet out of the ground (the rebar will keep the bottom of the break anchored, but that much concrete set in motion WILL stay in motion) and you've got a good thousand pounds of artificial stone piling down on you.

Not pleasant.

Posted by: James Buchanan | September 5, 2006 4:47 PM

The best thing about Columbia: the lines are buried and the power stays on. Not Floyd, not Isabel, not the great snow storm of '03, not the mini-ice burst of '02, not Ernesto, can knock out our power. If the power goes out, BGE turned it off.

Looks much better, too. I grew up with the tall green metal poles, which are butt-ugly.

Posted by: dynagirl | September 5, 2006 5:09 PM

I live in a community in PG County that has powerlines underground. Needless to say, I had no power Friday evening and most of Saturday morning because of the storm. Unfortunately, it happens quite often during big storms. So much for the undergroud theory.

Posted by: Mia Edwards | September 5, 2006 5:11 PM

Not only that, Marc, but I bet the concrete pencil will never replace the wood pencil. And, "having a concretey" will never replace "having a woodie."

Posted by: No thought too trivial for this blog | September 5, 2006 5:15 PM

How, exactly, did the storm affect your buried power lines? Did they flood and short out? Were they cut by a falling tree at a point prior to where they went underground? Somethng else? In any event, I'm sorry you lost power.

Posted by: Mark | September 5, 2006 5:34 PM

I think this blog post is obviously a metaphor for the DC mayoral race:

"You can paint a lump of concrete brown but you can't make it wood."

"Even if you can't catch fire doesn't mean people want you bearing their power."

There are a dozen meaningful messages in there that Marc might be trying to get across to an admiring public but the fascist Post censors won't let him express out loud.

Posted by: athea | September 5, 2006 6:12 PM

Excellent, Athea--you've cracked the code!

Posted by: Fisher | September 5, 2006 7:34 PM

Our neighborhood has its power lines underground (this is north Potomac in MoCo). For some reason our street still loses power quite often, actually, many times its the only street in the neighborhood without power. Pepco never has come up with a reason why this is.

Posted by: tallbear | September 6, 2006 10:15 AM

Why? Wood poles are prettier and look a bit like a tree. Steele poles are cold and industrial looking. My guess is its all aesthetics but there are more important things, I guess? I suppose it all depends on whether its your electrician or artist side speaking... Underground lines would be the best. Candles are nice...

Posted by: MoCoDC | September 6, 2006 11:22 AM

CW - Its okay for him to muse once in a while. might be good for all of us.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 6, 2006 11:26 AM

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