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Lineman, Spare That Tree?

I don’t know anyone who is thrilled to be without electrical power.  Then again, many residents enjoy their street trees and don’t want to see them diminished or damaged.  Betton Hills will soon experience the first cycle of the city’s enhanced tree trimming above power lines.  And, while it is a false choice to say it either has to be power or trees, choosing how to blend the two may take some careful thought.  This article describes the trimming program and options you have as a resident.  It gives you guidance on how to choose the line clearing strategy that’s best by you.

It’s a personal choice to support the enhanced trimming or not on your property.  The Betton Hills Neighborhood Association, while favoring a healthy urban forest, encourages you to make an informed choice.

Some Background Information

In response to the recent surge in nearby hurricanes (Hermine, Irma, and Michael), the city initiated a program of enhanced tree trimming above power lines.  The plan is to extend the tree branch and limb clearance height from the current standard of six feet to 10-12 feet over two trim cycles 18 months apart.  The thinking is that by increasing the clearance there will be fewer power outages not just during significant storm events, but also from the minor events that zap the power.

What minor events you ask?  Well, there’s a few different kinds.  First and most common, a branch may brush a power line and momentarily kill the power.  Another example is a squirrel getting to where it shouldn’t be and, sorry there’s no kind way to say this, getting fried and shorting out the circuit.  You know these events by the fact that the power goes off, but comes back on momentarily. 

Another type of minor event is when a limb falls on the wire(s) and stays there, causing a short.  There’s also situations in which a leaning tree or limb finally leans far enough onto a power line to cause a short.  In these instances, your power may go on and off a few times in short order . . . and then goes out for good.  The city then sends a crew out to clear the line to restore power.

Then, of course, there’s not the minor events but the big kahuna . . . the major storm or hurricane that not only causes branches to brush lines and limbs to drop across lines, but nearby trees to fall through the lines and/or knock down poles.  (The enhanced trimming will not address falling trees in most instances; but, if there’s a damaged or significantly leaning tree near a line, the city may work with the homeowner to remove it.)

Some General Considerations

The enhanced trimming will not affect the power line (i.e., service line) that runs from the power pole to your house.  The homeowner is responsible for maintaining that line.

Will we have more hurricanes that affect us this year?  No one knows.  Three in the last three years is extraordinary, to say the least.

In general, it cost significantly less to buy a generator that can power your refrigerator, freezer, and some basic lights and fans than it does to have a tree taken down.

Personal Observations

I’m not convinced of the value of this program.  Here’s the problem for me.  The city’s data-gathering for tree-related outages combines into one count the number of trees falling through a line as well as the number of limbs brushing or falling on a line.  Our utility people say that based on limited pilot studies here and industry standards there’s a 50% reduction in tree-related power outages with the enhanced trimming.  I have a lot of trees by the street, as do many of my neighbors on our power circuit.  I like their look and the shade they provide.  Do I have some power outages?  Yes, though the tree-related ones haven’t been from my trees and tend to be rather short, rarely over an hour.  Those don’t bother me much, not enough to trim “my” street trees back. 

Most of my inconvenience comes with major storms and that’s when the main problem by far is falling trees somewhere in the neighborhood rather than branches brushing or landing on our lines.  I would have preferred that the city spend our money on having independent arborists assess the health of trees within the fall zone of power lines or even setting up a generator lending library more than the enhanced tree trimming.

Homeowner’s Guide for Tree Trimming Decisions

  • Do you have an electric wire(s) on your side of the road?  The city has agreements with various companies (e.g., telephone, cable, etc.) to carry their wires on the city’s poles; sometimes these wires are below power lines, sometimes they are on poles that don’t have power lines.  To see if you have electric wires on the poles in your yard, look at the topmost wire(s).  Electric wires are always the highest wires.  Follow a wire to a pole.  If it’s an electric wire, you’ll see small insulators at the poles.  Also, you can follow the wire until you see a transformer (looks like a big silvery can near the top of a pole).  A wire will run from the transformer to an electric power line.  If you don’t see a power line, you don’t have to worry about enhanced tree trimming by your house.
  • If you do have power line(s) in your yard, count the power wires.  There may be one, two, or three.  If:
    • one, it usually goes over the top of the pole;
    • two, usually aligned horizontally near the top of the pole; there may be a wooden crossbrace with the wires at each end;
    • three, may be aligned horizontally, vertically, or in a triangle shape; common examples are on Betton, Mitchell, Trescott, Armistead, and Woodgate Roads.

The higher the number, the more homes are served by those wires.  The city’s service priorities go from three, to two, to one.  Meaning, the lower the number of wires, in general, the more willing the city will be to work with you to adjust the trimming.

  • Check for branches above the wires.  The city previously trimmed to 6 feet above the wires.  Look up to 10-12 feet above the wire(s) to envision the enhanced trimming zone.  Do you have good sized limbs and/or plenty of small branches in that zone?  If so, you’re subject to enhanced trimming.
  • Evaluate the situation.  Here’s where your choice comes in.  Do you like the look of the tree with its branches as they are?  (If the city cuts a substantial limb, for the health of the tree, they may cut it back to a spot well outside of trim zone.)  Does the tree continue a canopy for more than your yard?  Do the in-the-zone branches provide shade that you like for yourself, bikers, or walkers/runners?  Are you interested in preserving native trees for their wildlife values of food and shelter?  How does a power outage affect you (e.g., Are short outages tolerable?  Do you have a generator or do you tend to get out of town for major storms, etc.?  From factors such as these, determine how you would prefer the trimming to be done, if at all.  If you want the trimming done, you don’t have to do anything; the city will do the enhanced trimming.
  • IF YOU DON’T WANT THE FULL ENHANCED TRIMMING, MAKE YOUR OPINION KNOWN.  Prior to the start of the trimming, a trimming notice doorhanger will be placed on your front door.  When that occurs, call the person listed on the back of the doorhanger right away.  If the person listed is not Perry Odom, City Forester, you can call him at 891-5181 (office) or 694-8206 (cell).  Mr. Odom will meet with you to discuss options and to work toward a mutually agreeable solution.