What are you going to do, trim the entire town?” was the pointed question asked at a Duck River Electric Membership Corp. (DREMC) meeting in the mid-1990s. The concern was raised because of a vegetation management improvement initiative underway.

Prior to the incident in question, new leadership at DREMC recognized right-of-way (ROW) management was where a majority of money and energy were being spent. ROW crews were doing their own planning, customer relations and trimming — and each crew within the five operating districts was doing it its own way. Accurately budgeting and forecasting vegetation management expenses was nearly impossible with this system, and the coop's board of directors was pressing employees to do better.

Initial efforts to proactively prune trees only caused frustration among members, as the pointed question from the DREMC meeting indicates. Rather than become discouraged, the utility decided to seize the opportunity and redesign its entire vegetation management program.

Where to Begin

Feeling too close to the situation, as many utilities do, DREMC sought outside assistance from an objective organization without a financial stake in how many trees were pruned in a year. After much research, DREMC chose ACRT, an independent utility vegetation management firm, to provide a detailed system assessment, or workload survey, of its programs. DREMC outlined several objectives when hiring ACRT:

  • Establish a realistic budget and improve forecasting accuracy

  • Reduce and control maintenance costs

  • Establish a trim cycle

  • Create a comprehensive list of specifications

  • Optimize the contractor strategy

  • Boost electric reliability

  • Benchmark and measure DREMC's vegetation management program

  • Improve relations with the utility's 71,000 members.

To get the lay of the land, ACRT's arborist walked DREMC's system in half-mile (0.8-km) increments entering information into a database, including types of vegetation, number of line miles, capacity and appropriate circuit clearances. The company then looked at DREMC's program from a business perspective, reviewing budgeting levels, management procedures, cycles, non-routine work, contract rates and terms, contract types and conditions, customer communications, specifications and reliability indices.

Then, by using sophisticated statistical modeling techniques, ACRT produced a system assessment report and action plan. At first, DREMC was skeptical about the results of the system assessment. The decision was made to pilot the four-year cycle that ACRT proposed in one district starting in 2000. Resulst were so encouraging that by 2001, DREMC's board of directors approved the cycle program for all of its operating districts. Adopting the plan devised by ACRT and DREMC was the first step toward an integrated vegetation management (IVM) program that would help the coop meet its objectives and more.

Plan the Work, Work the Plan

The days of trimming an entire town at once were over; DREMC now had a plan in place. ACRT's arborist would walk every one of its distribution lines on a four-year cycle to create and maintain a systematic plan of tree and brush work, and to ensure all of the work was on budget and on cycle. Rather than pruning as needed, DREMC knew, without a doubt, one-fourth of its system would be addressed in any given year, which helped with both budgeting and work planning. To ensure maintenance costs were minimized, only necessary work on the tree and brush would be completed — nothing more, nothing less.

DREMC also made some fundamental changes to the way it operated. Instead of paying crews by the hour, they were paid by units to boost productivity. Its five districts also were consolidated under one umbrella so each was no longer working independently. Everyone now operated under the same plan and the same cycle. Additionally, a herbicide program was put into effect to eliminate low-growing vegetation from ROW, dramatically improving accessibility to lines for crews. Like the tree auditing and trimming schedule, the herbicide program would be executed in four-year cycles.

Record keeping and monitoring also were dramatically improved as ACRT's foresters planned the work systemwide and became accountable for ensuring only the necessary trees were trimmed.

However, these results were not immediate. Even though the guesswork had been taken out of budgeting and forecasting, DREMC experienced an initial increase in maintenance costs as the cycle program got underway, peaking in 2002 at US$2.75 million.

Especially during the transition, patience was a virtue. By 2006, the coop saw a 30% decrease in maintenance costs over where it started in 1997. To ensure maintenance costs are kept to a minimum, DREMC and four full-time ACRT arborists constantly monitor and calibrate the plan. Even trimming one additional tree per mile in the four-year cycle can make maintenance costs rise by up to $324,000 during the time period.

Throughout the implementation process, improving electric reliability for members also was a priority, and its new vegetation management program was just part of the solution. The coop also implemented lightning protection systems, and upgraded and added new substations. The herbicide program also helped improve response time to outages, enabling crews to get to downed lines faster. In the end, DREMC achieved a 40% improvement in its electric reliability in just a few years.

Membership Has its Privileges

The founding principles of community have not changed at DREMC. When members protested that entire towns were being trimmed, officials took it seriously. Strengthening member relations and upholding its commitment to community has been and continues to be important to the DREMC employees and board of directors.

Prior to the system assessment and reallocation of duties, tree-trimming crews were responsible for talking to members and notifying them of any work to be done on their properties. For better or for worse, this made them ambassadors of the DREMC brand, the face to the community. The first thing DREMC did was appoint an ACRT arborist as a liaison to the community who talked directly to members. The ACRT arborist was trained in community relations and learned how to best explain the pruning procedures to customers in a professional manner, thus improving member relations.

DREMC also focused on educating the community on why trees need to be pruned around power lines and best practices for maintaining the health of trees. Employee volunteers visit elementary schools annually to teach children about arboriculture and plant trees. For adults, DREMC publishes regular articles in local publications on tree-related topics and offers tree-for-tree programs, in which the utility offers members an approved tree in exchange for cutting down a problem tree.

Providing advanced warning of tree work also can diffuse the threat of angry customers. DREMC uses multiple methods of warning members about trimming activities, including door hangers, bill stuffers and newspaper articles.

Jeers to Cheers in 15 Years

DREMC has come a long way in its 75 years, but the past 15 have proven significant in its history. By restructuring its vegetation management program, investing in infrastructure and educating the community, the coop has effectively boosted its electric reliability, reduced maintenance costs, improved budgeting and forecasting, and improved relations with members.

Today, the coop boasts a best-in-class IVM program with documented, measurable success. As a result, DREMC's IVM has been lauded among peers and communities. It was the first electric coop in Tennessee to receive Tree Line USA accreditation, a companion program to Tree City USA. DREMC's herbicide program also has received awards, and the utility's leaders are frequently invited to speak to other coops in the region and at industry conferences about best practices in vegetation management. DREMC arborists also are certified to teach continuous education courses on ROW management.

However, like anything else, there is always room for improvement. Now that a foundation has been built, ACRT and DREMC employees have started tracking tree-related power outages and identifying problem areas and problem trees. They are looking at problem species, such as eastern red cedar, that are prone to causing problems during ice storms. By pinpointing and addressing high-risk areas, they are hoping to further improve reliability.

DREMC has made continuous improvement a way of life and has proven that with a solid plan, just about anything can be accomplished.

Michael Watson (mwatson@dremc.com) is vice president of Duck River Electric Membership Corp. He has been with the electric coop since 1992, previously serving as operating and electrical engineer, district manager and operations manager. Prior to joining DREMC, he spent five years at Memphis Light Gas and Water in the substation engineering department as a protective relay engineer. He earned a BSEE degree from Mississippi State University and a MSEE degree from Memphis State University. He is active in the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association's T&D power-quality subcommittee.

James Barnhart (jbarnhart@dremc.com) is the right-of-way supervisor for Duck River Electric Membership Corp. He holds a bachelor's degree in forestry and has more than 41 years of experience as a utility forester/arborist in utility line clearance and right-of-way vegetation management. He has been with DREMC for nine years, managing all line-clearance trimming and integrated vegetation management activities. He is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and serves as director of the ISA Tennessee State Southern Chapter.

About Duck River EMC

Duck River Electric Membership Corp. (DREMC) was born out of a sense of community in the 1930s when a group of citizens were determined to bring electricity to rural areas in Tennessee. With some resistance from area residents, the group held countless community meetings until May 1936 when the first rural lights came. Membership dues were US$10, a considerable amount at the time.

DREMC services 6,000 miles (9,656 km) of distribution lines for all or portions of Bedford, Coffee, Franklin, Giles, Grundy, Hickman, Lawrence, Lewis, Lincoln, Marion, Marshall, Maury, Moore, Rutherford, Warren and Williamson counties in middle southern Tennessee. A keystone of DREMC's mission is to enhance the quality of life for citizens in the region, meaning it places a high value on interactions with members, from individual customer service to the collective well-being of local citizens.

Today, more than 75 years, DREMC's membership fee is still $10.

Companies mentioned:

ACRT | www.acrtinc.com

Arbor Day Foundation | www.arborday.org

Duck River Electric Membership Corp. | www.dremc.com