Utility linemen often work outside in inclement weather conditions and at a considerable height above the ground. At times, they also face another challenge: working in remote locations. In these areas, linemen — and especially tree crews — face obstacles when it comes to vegetation management. The uneven terrain and isolation from access roads and traditional aerial equipment compounds the problem.
Trees, which are the top cause of outages and service interruption, seem to grow more rapidly and flourish more abundantly in remote areas. When accessing these areas, utilities often have to cover the cost of building temporary roads. In some cases, the crews also have to spend several hours just to reach a remote work site, and this travel time can add up quickly. Utility arborists and linemen also encounter other hurdles when working in no-man's land.
Pack Your Bags
Before embarking on a trip to a remote area, a line and tree crew has to prepare for the journey ahead. When a tree crew packs for a day or more in the backcountry, it looks more like a party getting ready for a fishing expedition: extra fuel, hip boots, a 4×4 or all-terrain vehicle (ATV), bug repellent, rain gear, and adequate food and water.
When Florida Power & Light Co. (FP&L; Juno Beach, Florida) crews travel to a remote destination, they pack at least a daily ration of food in the event of a breakdown, says John Tamsberg, FP&L's manager of transmission vegetation management. Crews working in these remote areas travel by ATVs referred to as “skidder buckets.” If the terrain will allow it, the vehicles are equipped with a 50-ft bucket. The ATVs are also outfitted with either wide tires for soft terrain or huge, tall tires for the high, rocky country.
FP&L crews often ride in ATVs to maintain the utility grid in swamps and cypress forests, but in some situations, they have to rely on other modes of transportation. For instance, to access the Everglades, crews sometime uses air boats, and when trying to cross steep terrain, climbing crews may walk or drive 4×4s to a remote location.
If necessary, crews also use helicopters or aerial saws for side trimming projects. FP&L uses this strategy when the incremental cost of the equipment is offset by the savings derived from a reduced need for environmental restoration and a decrease in the time required to move personnel and equipment to the work site.
The biggest challenge for tree crews in remote locations is safety, says Ralph Hale of Entergy Transmission in West Monroe, Louisiana.
“The terrain really hampers working conditions due to the lack of roads for equipment support and limited access points to the actual work sites,” Hale explains. “It can be very risky due to the lack of adequate working conditions, steep slopes and grades.”
Tree crews also work in dense timber and brush with loose materials on the ground. If an accident occurs, there may be a lack of visibility or extended travel time to obtain emergency services, he says.
A Long Way from Nowhere
One of the unique challenges of working in remote locations is the distance from civilization. PacifiCorp's Randy Miller, director of education management, says it's often difficult to keep track of trees in remote locations. His utility has a 442-mile stretch of 500-kV line that runs through southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon, from the Malin Substation in Klamath County, Oregon, to the Midpoint Substation in Jerome County, Idaho.
“Most of it is no-man's land covered with sage brush, but some sections have trees,” Miller says. “Some of these vegetation sites are a two-day trip away. You take a day to get there in a four-wheeler, you stay overnight, and it's a day back. It would be easy to lose track of a single tree in these remote areas that could jump up and bite you.”
Regarding remoteness, FP&L's Tamsberg says that there always needs to be an escape plan and provisions for communications. He considers a global positioning system (GPS) a must for working in remote locations. For safety reasons, tree crews are required to carry communication equipment such as a cell phone, a radio and possibly a satellite phone as a backup. In case of an emergency, crew members carry maps and medical emergency contact information, and are trained on response procedures and the location of the nearest medical response center.
The extra price utilities pay just to get to a remote work site makes it all the more important for trimming crews to document the environment and the work they completed. Laptops and other handheld computer devices have become some of the tools of the trade for these crews. Depending on the coverage area, wireless connectivity via computer to the real world and possibly the company's network help keep crews from complete isolation. Over the years, these devices have become lighter and fully functional for mapping and documentation.
Crews working in remote areas also inspect tower conductors and other infrastructure while they are on location. They keep careful records of vegetation growth, debris disposal and the trim cycle. Crews document types of trees and plants, and pinpoint their longitudes and latitudes with a GPS. They also note clearance measurements and suggest pruning cycles. Other items on the crews' list may include:
Landowners and land uses and how to notify them
Other potentially affected people, agencies or tribes
Light industrial/commercial/urban residential/county
Unique surroundings such as show horses, noxious weeds or fruit orchards
Affected water resources (streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands)
Threatened or endangered plant or animal species or wildlife habitat
Areas with steep slopes, spanned canyons or cliffs.
Documentation also is important when the land owner is a federal agency. Crews often face unique and time-consuming requirements, and procedures must be followed rigorously when working on federal land.
“You have to document every tree that is cut, and in some cases, you have to take out everything you take in,” Tamsberg says.
In some cases, tree crews also have to check in at the ranger station when they arrive at a work site on federal land. The ranger will give them plastic bags, and they will have to return those bags when they leave the area to make sure they don't contaminate or disrupt the environment.
Many of the trimming and pruning tools used in the backcountry are the same as in a suburban environment: hand saws, ropes and climbing gear, pruners and chain saws. The major difference is there is seldom any bucket work, so most of the work is done from the ground, which is also more dangerous. This is where the heavy cutting and removal is done by hand. In the backcountry, it may be the only option.
Compared to bucket crews, who can rely on a hydraulic source for their power tools and an aerial boom, tree crews in remote areas rely on hand tools and chain saws. The good news is today's tools have become lighter and more efficient, which translates into a lighter load to carry and faster cutting.
Weight is always a problem when crews are working in the backcountry. In some cases, crews pack their tools and gear the last several hundred yards along the rights-of-way to the tree-growth area. Pruning tools and extra fuel and water, as well as the cumbersome ropes used for climbing and rigging, can become a weight issue.
With no bucket truck in sight, crews pruning in the backcountry are dependent on their climbing skills and rope techniques to complete a pruning and removal project in the backcountry. No worker enjoys climbing a pole with a chain saw on his or her back to directional prune a 50-ft-high limb, but sometimes this is necessary to get the job done. Fortunately, the technology has improved. Compared to a few years ago, lighter saddles and belts are now available. They are preferred in the backcountry, not only because they are more comfortable, but also because they include easy-release lanyards, snaps and carabineers.
Multi-braided rope used for tree work has also become much more lightweight. These ropes are manufactured with up to 18 strands, making for a better knot. Chain saws have also become lighter while their average torque power has increased, making tree cutting quicker and easier, especially for the climber. The pole pruners and extender gear that crews carry in remote areas are made of fiberglass for the same reason.
Trimming crews in the remote areas, like any other ground crew, wear protective chaps when operating a chain saw. Crews prefer to wear chaps made of Kevlar, a synthetic fiber developed by DuPont. Such chaps are lightweight and designed to catch and jam the chain saw teeth before they cut into the operator's legs. The improved personal protective equipment makes trimming safer and more tolerable, even in inclement weather.
Maintaining Remote Parts of the Grid
Linemen, and especially tree trimming and removal specialists, know all too well about working in remote areas. Not only do remote parts of the utility grid require daily maintenance and surveillance, but customers on the other side of the mountains, wetlands, deserts and rural areas have the same expectations for reliable service as the downtown business owners and city residents.
Professional utility arborists are trained to maintain the line clearance on the utility's rights-of-way in remote locations. The tree crews go to these inaccessible, back-country locations to minimize outages and improve service reliability to customers on the power delivery system. Packing the right tools, working smart and safely and keeping detailed records of the vegetation environment for future work in these remote rights-of-way will help make the tree crews' long, rugged treks easier.