Trees and wires conflicted from the beginning when they both tried to occupy the same space.

With that being said, one of the most important — and inherently dangerous — services certain tree care companies perform is utility line clearance.

Utility line arborists are trained to prune according to ANSI A-300 pruning standards and follow industry best practices.ALL PHOTOS: ISTOCK 

As defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a line clearance tree contractor is a company that is qualified to maintain trees near power lines. These companies employ qualified line clearance arborists who receive ongoing electrical safety training as well as provide equipment and tools that are maintained as non-conductive. So what is involved in utility line clearance? With the goal of providing some basic information involving this facet of tree care, as well as expanding on certain aspects via industry experts, we posed several questions and subsequent answers about the topic:

Q. Who are some of the major national players involved?

Davey Tree, headquartered in Kent, Ohio, is among the better-known companies that provide utilities with line clearance services. Davey’s footprint on the industry is a national one; however, like most companies, it started small – the company was started by British immigrant John Davey in 1880 after he impressed locals with the transformation of the landscape in a Kent cemetery. Davey’s commercial services include everything from distribution and transmission right-of-way clearance to utility forestry consulting services and custom herbicide applications to 24-hour restoration services.

Asplundh, headquartered in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, also has a large national footprint and has been in the line clearance business since 1928. Asplundh provides a wide range of specialized services, but line clearance remains the company’s core business that operates in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as some smaller, regional line clearance firms.

Wright Tree Service, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, was founded in 1933 and is one of the largest vegetation management contractors in the country. Wright Tree Service (WTS) also provides storm restoration and work planning services to utility companies and their communities and has more than 2,600 employees across 11 geographic divisions.

Trees Inc. ,headquartered in Houston, Texas, also operates nationally and opened in 1953, specializing in utility line clearing and vegetation management. Trees Inc. works with some of the largest utility companies in the country.

Line clearance tree trimmers must always determine the voltage(s) of any power lines that may pose a hazard before work begins.

Q. Regional companies also are major industry players, right?

Let’s take one company from each coast: Lucas Tree Experts (Portland, Maine) and Mowbray’s Tree Service (San Bernardino, California).

There are many benefits of having a regional footprint and specializing in utility work, according to Lucas manager Peter Roy, including the fact that “you can pull resources from different work areas to assist your utility customers who have either an emergency event or unexpected deadlines.” Roy adds, “It’s also helpful, when you are trying to supply work in nearby areas, if you have trained manpower and equipment nearby that you can utilize to assist in making a smooth transition in that new area.”

Lucas is a fully integrated vegetation management (IVM) company, providing utility services since 1926.

Across the country, two time zones away, Mowbray’s Tree Service provides utility line clearance throughout California and Arizona. Family-owned and -operated since 1972, Mowbray’s contracts with large West Coast utilities such as Southern California Edison.

highVoltageSide2“We’ve grown a lot over the last two years,” says Dwight Anderson, president and CEO of Mowbray’s. “Traditionally, Mowbray’s worked just as a subcontractor under Edison, but we’ve now expanded to Arizona Public Service as a prime contractor and Pacific Gas & Electric as a prime contractor and subcontractor.”

Despite the business boom that utility line clearing has brought Mowbray’s, Anderson stresses that safety remains the roots that hold the company together.

“[Utility line clearing] is dangerous work, so there are a lot of safety requirements and training that is performed to make sure our employees are performing in a safe manner to avoid someone being injured, or property being damaged, or, worst-case scenario, someone being killed by electrocution,” Anderson says.

Q. Isn’t safety always at the root of tree care work?

Of course, but when engaging in utility line clearing, the hazards and worst-case scenarios are multiplied exponentially compared with day-to-day, residential tree work. “We have all seen the destruction trees can do to the electric infrastructure,” says WTS Regional Manager John Hurst. “Poles can be broken, steel structures can be toppled, the lines themselves are broken into many pieces, etc. Many times, downed lines are still energized. Since the trees are lying on energized lines, the trees themselves may be energized as well. Even if the lines are not energized there may be a huge amount of pressure on these lines when large limbs or entire trees are laying on them.”

Avoiding large-scale power outages also comes into play often.

“The one thing you don’t want to cause is unplanned power outages,” Anderson of Mowbray’s says. “There are times when we have to ask the utility company to down the power when situations are particularly hazardous. On a normal, routine day, 99.8 percent of what we do is around fully charged power lines.”

Q. What constitutes a fully charged power line?

There are two types: Transmission lines are high-capacity power lines that bring electricity from a generating station into the community and carry 69,000 to 345,000 volts. Distribution lines carry power from local substations to homes and businesses and carry 4,500 to 34,500 volts.

Those volts are precisely why safety is, on a daily basis, at the absolute center of what these companies do.

“Daily, we conduct meetings, go over safety training with every crew … all to make sure they know how to handle [working around power lines],” Anderson says. “We do daily safety surveys, go through checklists … all things to heighten awareness of the safety of our foremen and our crews.”

Daily safety meetings are also part of the fabric of WTS, according to Hurst.

“We never stop training. We have job briefings at least twice a day outlining potential hazards,” Hurst says. “In addition, we have safety tailgate meetings, which involve training our employees for a variety of situations they will encounter on the jobsite. New American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards require us to train and then re-train as newer and better methods become standard practice. New equipment has entered our field, new studies have dictated better ways to prune trees, as well as more need for education on our employees’ part to keep up with the changes in our industry. This training is started from day one of being on the jobsite.”highVoltageSide

Q. How are utility line clearance arborists trained?

Most tree care workers are not qualified to work near energized power lines. Qualified utility line clearance professionals must meet OSHA qualifications and are the only ones legally permitted to work within 10 feet of power lines or work on a tree that has branches within 10 feet of power lines.

When pruning trees around power lines, arborists must possess the skills – and training and expertise – to climb the tree and do the work without disturbing or damaging power lines. They are trained to prune according to ANSI A-300 pruning standards and follow industry best practices, which help preserve the health of trees and, naturally, prevent death or injury.

“Training is crucial in many ways,” Hurst says. “First and foremost, safety training is key. Our employees have families like anyone else and we want them to go home safely every night. Not only does WTS want our employees to go home safe, but OSHA also puts rules in place to encourage safe practices.”

According to OSHA, line clearance tree trimmers must always:

  • Determine the voltage(s) of any lines that may pose a hazard before work begins. Alternatively, all lines must be considered as operating at the voltage of the line with the highest voltage.
  • Ensure their body parts and any ladders, platforms or aerial devices being used remain outside the minimum approach distance from any energized part.
  • Use only insulated tools and equipment to remove branches and limbs that are in contract with, or are within the minimum approach distance of, energized parts.

“A safe employee is going to be a productive employee,” Roy says. “From driving a CDL bucket [truck] to the jobsite and working around power lines, employees must not only be trained, they need to accept and embrace the safety culture. Old work practices from 10 or 20 years ago are not accepted. New safety culture has changed the way we work.”

One way for an employer to make sure crews are properly trained is by going through Electrical Hazards Awareness Program (EHAP) training. Offered by the Tree Care Industry Association, EHAP is a useful way to keep crews aware of electrical hazards and reduce injuries and losses, keeping them trained and ready so they’re also qualified for storm cleanup at any moment. EHAP workshops are offered often throughout the country.

Read more: Planting Safely by Power Lines

Q. What about storm cleanup?

Most utility line clearance companies also engage in some form of storm cleanup, whether it’s within their region or nationally.

At Mowbray’s, Anderson says his crews have been involved in several storm cleanups, “cleaning up downed trees around power lines, hurricanes, windstorms and firestorms.” In 2014, Mowbray’s removed 18,000 burnt trees after a fire ravaged the mountains of the Big Creek area of Southern California.

“That was just one of the projects we’ve been involved in recently. That was pretty nasty,” Anderson says.

It’s a different storm scene over on the East Coast for Lucas Tree Experts.

“Being a primarily Northeast company, we are mostly dealing with heavy snow and ice damage,” Roy says. “If the storm is going to last multiple days, [our] crews go on a 17-hour on, 7-hour off rotation. Work activities can vary from patrolling lines to rigging large trees that are snapped off and hanging over power lines.”

WTS also engages in national storm cleanup, including “hurricanes in the southern and eastern parts of the U.S., tornadoes and ice storms in the Midwest, derechos in the West or anything in-between,” Hurst says. “We always stand prepared to go anywhere at anytime.”

Q. Where does integrated vegetation management factor in?

Overgrown vegetation can ground out electrical wires, which causes fires. This is why IVM – which is managing overgrown vegetation in areas that contain power lines with herbicide applications, pruning and tree removal – is a must. IVM, specifically the use of herbicides, is becoming a more popular activity in the utility line clearing business, according to Anderson.

“We attribute this to the utility companies being required to keep their transmission line right-of-ways clear, and these companies need to use herbicides, applied by licensed applicators, to maintain these right-of-ways,” Anderson says.

Pacific Gas & Electric’s  vegetation management division spends $168 million each year to establish a planned and consistent pruning cycle, which includes an annual inspection cycle to identify hazardous trees and those in need of pruning.

The Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC), a member-owned electric cooperative in operation since 1937, headquartered in Crewe, Virginia, serves 55,000 homes and businesses in 18 counties across Central Virginia. The SEC  began using herbicides to control brush within right-of-ways in 2008. Circuits are re-treated every four years to address any new trees that have begun to grow within the right-of-way.

Q. What are the tools of the trade?

Like any tree work, utility line clearing requires specific tools. A company certified for line clearance needs an arsenal of non-conductive and insulated mechanical equipment, including a large mix of bucket trucks with varying reaches and boom heights, traffic devices, hand tools, first-aid kits, sprayers, chippers with proper lock-out and tag-out tags, chain saws, stump grinders, tree masticators and other various hydraulic tools.

Read more: 3 more useful things to know about utility line clearing.