Utilities large and small have been outsourcing a variety of services for years. In the area of vegetation management, this generally includes services such as tree trimming, mechanical right-of-way (R/W) control and possibly applying soil sterilants in substation areas. Of course, utilities could have accomplished many of these functions with internal personnel with various levels of skill. This was acceptable when cash was plentiful, oversight was less important and programs were not very sophisticated. Today operating costs are continually rising, regulatory oversight is becoming stricter, and our customers require better service at a lower cost. In response, vegetation management programs need revamping to keep pace.

Larger utilities generally have the resources to evolve. Rapid change and increasing complexities generally leave the small to mid-sized utilities somewhat behind the learning curve and short of the expertise needed. Experience has shown that a smaller utility's overhead cannot absorb the expense for a full-time, experienced vegetation management infrastructure. Program development and oversight typically transfer to other staff members who are already performing several responsibilities. While capable in their specialty areas, these individuals are generally not sufficiently knowledgeable given the present sophistication of vegetation management practices.

Outsourcing can be a viable option in several situations: when funding is not available for a full-time experienced vegetation management professional; when additional help is needed to supplement in-house staff; or when there is a need to address a specific problem area. Systems that are experiencing declining reliability, increasing costs and heavier workloads related to vegetation issues cannot continue on their present course without facing dire consequences. Utilities not proactively managing their vegetation issues will be faced with a stark reality — they have more vegetation-related problems than their money can handle and the problem is continuing unabated.

Small utilities and co-ops can readily obtain several benefits from outsourcing. The most important thing is the availability of a highly trained and experienced staff that provides the same services to other customers daily. These people are familiar with the wide array of problems and circumstances. Thus, there is little need to “re-invent the wheel” for every situation. Smaller utilities may have funding available to cover a limited amount of time or for a special need, and it is best used in an expeditious manner. The utilities save time, and consequently money, by not having to get up to speed. The result of this activity is to increase system reliability and control costs as rapidly as possible.

Typically, trees are constantly revisited. For example, it is not uncommon for a tree to have four or more visits. If the program had been professionally managed, the tree would have been removed once and the stump treated with an herbicide to eliminate the root system. Furthermore, every time the tree was cut, about four to seven re-sprouts occurred at each cut, thus increasing the amount of material handled on each subsequent visit.

It is this type of experience and expertise that is necessary to provide the most cost-effective program possible for the smaller utility. People who have experience designing and operating systems develop a long-term approach to saving money and increasing reliability. They can act proactively, because they have the knowledge and experience to know what works and what doesn't. This is one of the reasons that outsourcing is a very viable option.

A utility seeking these services can expect the first step to be an assessment of current practices and recommendations for improvement. To begin, it will be necessary to obtain some baseline information and to develop a basic “feel” for the system. Two levels of detail can be obtained at this stage, a cursory review and a detailed audit of the existing system and its processes. This would entail a discussion with the utility on its present management practices, where it would like to be (its goals), specific operating conditions and concerns particular to its operating area. This would be followed up with a cursory examination of the utility's system pertaining to the vegetation conditions, such as past trimming practices, hazardous tree conditions and terrain conditions. A more detailed examination of the system may be required to quantify workloads. After the baseline information is obtained, a detailed listing of comments, both positive and negative, are noted. A list of recommendations that would need to be accomplished for the utility to reach its goals also is noted.

The next step is to implement and manage the program and to provide that level of expertise needed to arrive at the benefits and cost savings available to the larger utilities. Management expertise is critical for success in the areas of crew composition, crew staffing and crew productivity; proper pruning practices; appropriate herbicides and application; the effective use of tree-growth regulators; knowledge of regulations and easement issues; interfacing with governmental and community groups; and effectively explaining the goals of these activities.

By outsourcing, the city of Starke, Florida, U.S., has seen its system reliability increase tremendously in the last two years, while the amount of overtime for system restoration has decreased during this same period. The customers this municipal electric company serves have been receptive and accommodating because they have noticed the decrease in outages.

By having outside expertise evaluate its system, one large municipal electric company in central Florida realized a savings of more than US$65,000 in less than one month's time. The utility accomplished this by preparing a detailed inventory of its transmission system, modifying its specifications and realigning its workloads.

These examples illustrate how outsourcing can be a viable option for the smaller utility or electric cooperative. In the final analysis, small utilities and co-ops need to ask: Is our vegetation management program where it has to be or can it be better? If the answer is “I really have no idea,” or “We seem to be getting by,” then it could be the program is in a rut. And in business, a rut is nothing but a grave with the ends knocked out. Outsourcing can provide the method for climbing out of the rut, revitalizing an outmoded system and providing the difference between failure and success for the utility.

Tracy Maxwell has been involved with utility operations since 1976. He has supervised tree-trimming crews and managed line clearance operations. Maxwell, who holds the BA and MA degrees in plant ecology, is president of the Florida Vegetation Management Association and Utility representative for the Florida Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.