There are 500,000 utility poles in New Hampshire, yet we hardly notice them


Monitor staff

Published: 12-26-2016 11:08 PM

Marc Geaumont doesn’t work for a telephone company, but when it comes to utility poles, he has a confession to make.

“People in my family still call them telephone poles,” the director of field operations for Eversource Energy in New Hampshire admitted sheepishly during a tour of the Hooksett Work Center, which stores and prepares hundreds of poles for installation around the state.

You probably call them telephone poles, too, even though most are owned by electric companies. But whatever you call them, you don’t think about them much.

New Hampshire debates constantly about transmission towers, the long-distance giants of the electricity industry, but we never mention their little siblings, even though utility poles are much more numerous.

How much more numerous? Eversource New Hampshire owns or maintains 446,675 poles in its coverage area, about three-quarters of the state. Liberty Utilities estimates that it has 38,000 utility poles in its much smaller service area, and while I couldn’t get numbers for New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, altogether it’s safe to say there are at least 500,000 poles in the Granite State, slightly more than one for every three human beings.

Assuming an average height of 40 feet, the most common size, that means if you uprooted all these utility poles and placed them end to end they would stretch for 3,800 miles – from here to Los Angeles and a third of the way back. That’s a lot poles.

Are we unusual? The North American Wood Pole Association (yes, it exists) says that while “there is no central database” of utility poles, “it is estimated … that there are about 130 million wood utility poles in use across North America.” That’s also about one pole for every three humans, so it looks like we’re right on target.

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These poles get in the news only when they’re hit by a car and power goes out. That doesn’t seem fair for such an important part of our lives, so in the spirit of the holidays I thought I’d find out more.

‘Soft as butter’

Some places use utility poles made of steel, concrete or fiberglass (Eversource is experimenting with the last) but most are wood because it’s the cheapest. Huge stands of southern yellow pine, red pine, western red cedar and Douglas fir are grown by firms in the Southeast, the Pacific Northwest, and western Canada, with different species serving different needs. Cedar, for example, is heavy and expensive but is very resistant to rot, so it tends to be limited to wet areas. Geaumont noted that its wood is easy for linemen to climb with spikes: “Soft as butter.”

These tree farms aren’t forests any more than a corn field is a meadow. They are farms growing crops that take three or four decades to mature, and they support a multi-billion dollar industry. Eversource contracts with Cox Industries, an Orangeburg, S.C., tree products firm that sells lumber to homeowners, marine pilings to boat docks, ties to railroads – and lots of utility poles.

Prices vary, but as of December a 45-foot, Class 2 pole (class designates diameter – more on that later) costs $345, says Eversource. In other words, New Hampshire has more than $170 million worth of utility poles lining our roads and cutting across our fields. Many of them have been here a long time.

“Poles can last 40 to 50 years, no problem, as long as you don’t have insects, contamination in the soil that will react with the wood, and you don’t have somebody hitting it with a vehicle. And woodpeckers. They can be a problem,” said Geaumont.

Preserving wood buried in the ground is difficult, and preservative chemicals used over the years have often been a problem, notably creosote. A number of former pole storage yards around New England are polluted with creosote buildup in the soil, including one in Nashua that occasionally leaches into the Merrimack River.

The industry says modern treatment methods avoid that problem, but just in case, old utility poles are generally not sold to the public for use as fenceposts, as was long the habit in rural areas. (I have a bunch of fences made with poles that were quartered and cut into eight-foot lengths and after all these years, creosote still oozes out on hot days.)

A machine that could fight Godzilla

Despite preservation efforts, it’s a constant job replacing utility poles or installing new ones, known as a “pole set.”

“There are always pole sets going on. We do this just about every day,” said Thomas Davis, a supervisor from Eversource’s Tilton work center, which covers a swatch of the middle of New Hampshire from Barnstead to Grafton.

The office has eight to nine line crews, about 20 people all told, with nine bucket trucks and a specialized vehicle called a digger-derrick. The digger-derrick is a combination of industrial-class auger and extendable grappling hook that would hold its own in a fight against Godzilla; it can lift a half-ton utility pole 50 feet in the air and let it dangle until measurement with a plumb-bob indicates that it’s upright, then lower it slowly into a six-foot-deep hole.

The digger-derrick was on display in a recent pole set at a new home in Chichester. A 45-foot Class 2 pole, about 15 inches in diameter at the base, was brought on a trailer from the pole yard. Joel Garland, the working foreman, oversaw the installation with a trio of apprentices being trained as linemen: Brent Johnson, Tim Perozzi and Jeff Herlihy.

“This one is pretty easy,” Garland said of the job, in between using a loggers’ tree-shifting tool known as a peavey and directing Johnson at the digger’s controls.

When you’re dealing with something longer than a school bus and heavier than a Holstein cow, care is needed. Poles of different lengths must be placed at specific locations on the trailer, and the pole shed marks the central balance point so that the field crew knows where to attach chains when lifting.

Poles also come with a “birthmark,” placed 10 feet up from the bottom, that gives identifying numbers for utility and telephone companies as well as the date that the pole was made.

Then there’s deciding where to place a pole. Location is a function of many things, including what the customer needs, Dig Safe requirements, easements, whether there’s enough room for supporting guy wires, and of course location of existing lines. The ideal distance between distribution poles along the street is about 200 feet, but details can vary.

In Chichester, the pole set was on the far side of the street from the existing power line, so there were no poles or wires to be moved or worked around. Further, the stone wall along the road was out of the way of the digging, and the ground was just the right consistency.

“It’s not just big rocks that are the issue. If you hit fill – small rocks keep falling back into the hole when you pull the auger out, you might need an excavator,” said Davis.

If all goes well, an experienced team can set up a pole in about an hour. Connecting it to the grid is another matter.

What’s with all those wires?

Wires on utility poles exist in this order: Electricity is at the top, for safety reasons. Next down are wires from cable TV and third-party users, such as Internet firms with fiber-optic lines, and telephone lines are at the bottom, partly from tradition and partly because they’re usually made of copper and are the heaviest.

This order explains why a falling branch might knock out power but not your landline phone: The electric lines are the most exposed.

Details of placement, including who pays to install what where and how much room they have to leave above and below, can be contentious and has been the subject of lawsuits. A couple of feet on a utility pole is valuable corporate real estate.

Hooking up a utility pole to the grid usually requires teams from all of the different companies – electricity, TV, phone – to coordinate their schedules, which is one reason it can take a while.

Wires aren’t the only thing on a pole. The thing that looks like a trash can up at the top of many poles is a transformer, which takes higher voltage electricity running along the street and drops it to the 240 volts your house can handle. (Higher voltage travels more efficiently, which is why cross-country transmission lines, as compared to the distribution powerlines along your street, carry up to 342,000 volts.)

You might also see a square box with a green light, which is a power supply for the cable company, or a few other, smaller contraptions such as automated switching devices that Eversource is installing on thousands of poles around the state, part of overall “hardening” of the power system that many utilities are doing.

Speaking of hardening, Eversource is switching to stronger poles, partly in response to ice-storm issues in recent years.

“We used to run a lot of Class 4 poles, depending on the height, but we have changed to a minimum of Class 2,” said Geaumont. As with wire gauge, smaller numbers indicate bigger utility poles, measured by diameter or horizontal load-bearing capacity.

Making such a change has a ripple effect: “We had to change all of our auger sizes to handle the poles being bigger,” he added.

Poles are here to stay

If you stop to think about it, the idea that much of what we do every day requires electricity traveling to us via miles of skinny metal strands that are stapled to chopped-down trees – well, it’s kind of odd.

But is it inevitable? Distributed energy, especially solar panels on our roofs, can replace some of this but not all of it, and while it is possible to beam energy from place to place without using wires, that technology is never going to be a feasible solution for everyday life, as Nikola Tesla learned a century ago.

Poles could be replaced with buried power power lines but that isn’t perfect: Wires don’t get knocked down in ice storms but they do get flooded and dug up by mistake. And it’s much more expensive, so it will never be the norm.

In other words, even if self-driving cars and drones and autonomous robots take over our streets and roads, they’re going to be moving past wooden poles with wires strung between them. Let’s just hope that they’ve been programmed not to call them telephone poles.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)