Not long ago, we wrote about calling 811 at least two business days before digging more than a foot deep on your property to ensure you won’t run into any underground utilities. We did so because, with this great spring weather, the gardening and home improvement projects are blossoming.
Today we’d like to draw your attention upward to address a similar safety concern. We are talking about trees and power lines, and how the two don’t make a good pair.
Even if a tree never comes crashing through your house or interacts with your power lines, it’s likely that you have been affected by a power outage at some time caused by a broken limb or felled tree somewhere along the power line that serves you.
Todd Plato, the contract construction superintendent at the Grays Harbor Public Utility District, is the guy in the know when it comes to trees and power.
“A lot of our outages are tree-related, so we are constantly working to trim trees that encroach on our transmission and distribution lines,” he said, explaining that the PUD contracts with tree trimming specialists to do the work.
In addition to supervising a four-year tree trimming cycle in each of the county’s communities, Plato is constantly doing tree triage to prioritize which potentially threatening trees outside the current scheduled trimming area need to be addressed.
What trees not to plant
Which trees give the Grays Harbor PUD the most trouble? Alders, maples and willows top their Most Not Wanted list — at least not near their power lines — because they grow so easily and quickly.
The PUD spends between $1 million and $1.5 million a year on tree trimming and removal, Plato said. “It is a major cost for us, but it is critical for the safety and reliability of our power system.”
In addition to not planting the “big three” anywhere near power lines, the PUD wants Grays Harbor residents to know which trees are the responsibility of the PUD and which are up to the homeowner to deal with.
The big power poles with transformers on them have small “service lines” that go to the mast on the roof of each individual’s home.
“We will trim 10 feet around that pole and the first 10 feet from the pole along the service line. However, trees along the rest of the service line are the responsibility of the homeowner,” Plato explained.
“I also get a lot of calls from people concerned with gutters filling up with leaves or a tree that that is threatening the structure of a house,” he said. “Those issues are for the homeowner to address. Our part is strictly about how power and trees may interact.”
If the threatening branches are clearly more than 10 feet from the pole on the service line, it’s up to the homeowner to trim the tree. If that’s you, make sure you call the PUD at least 48 hours of when you — or a hired tree service worker — intend to trim or fall the tree. The service dispatcher will arrange to take down the service line before the trimming.
If you have a tree or know of one that has grown into the power lines, or if you believe a tree is dead, is decaying or presents a hazard to the electrical system, call Plato at 360-538-6284. He said he’s typically able to take a look within two weeks.
Around here, plenty of folks know how to cut trees. However, as we often say with any contractor, make sure the tree service you plan to hire is licensed, bonded and insured for the work they are doing.
Plant from the list instead
One way we can reduce future dangers and potential outages is by paying attention to what kinds of trees we plant under or near power lines.
The Grays Harbor PUD doesn’t just tell their customers which trees are particularly burdensome; they also offer a suggested list of Western Washington landscape trees that might make good options.
However, they do so with a caveat that “trees planted in Grays Harbor County receive an abundance of moisture as compared to areas further inland. The trees listed can develop and grow 15 to 20 percent taller than the 25 to 30 feet as advertised by tree nurseries.”
That’s why, regardless of the type, you should never plant a tree directly under high-voltage power lines, telephone and communication lines — or over the top of underground wires, gas lines or water and wastewater pipes.
The PUD and each city have a list of suggested varieties of deciduous and broadleaf trees in their websites. Remember to call before you choose, and before you dig.
Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is executive director. This is a nonprofit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing for all residents of Grays Harbor County. For questions about home repair, renting, remodeling or buying, call 360-533-7828 or visit 710 E. Market St. in Aberdeen. Our office is fully ADA-compliant.