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PG&E Makes Sure Utility Poles Stand the Test of Time

By Tracy Correa

KINGS COUNTY – Josh Rogers – hammer in hand – methodically knocks on a PG&E utility pole mounted at the edge of a dusty field halfway between the rural towns of Hanford and Lemoore, just south of Fresno.

The hammer test doesn’t seem very high tech, but it’s an important part of the process for determining the structural integrity of PG&E’s wooden utility poles that dot the Northern and Central California landscape.

PG&E has a pretty good track record of its 2.2 million utility poles being able to withstand both the elements and time and the utility wants to keep it this way through periodic testing to ensure its poles are in good shape.

Working with a team of contractors, the utility’s Pole Test and Treat Program will oversee inspection of about 300,000 poles this year – slightly more than last year. It’s part of a painstaking and cumbersome process that involves detailed mapping and experts in the field.

“We touch every pole in PG&E territory at least once every 10 years,” said Michael Pallatroni, senior program manager with PG&E’s Pole Test and Treat Program. It’s more often than the state’s Public Utilities Commission requires – once every 20 years – and coincides with current industry best practices.

David De La Cruz, with Utility Pole Technologies, repairs a utility pole in Fresno County as part of PG&E’s Pole Test and Treat Program. (Photos by Tracy Correa.)

“We lose hundreds of poles every year to storms, high winds and car crashes. But the number of poles lost where we can say it’s because of internal decay is very small,” said Pallatroni.

The work currently taking place in Fresno and surrounding counties is one of the largest area projects under way with more than 250,000 poles on the list for inspection. Pole inspections recently have been completed south of here in Bakersfield and up north in Santa Rosa and Novato.

Poles in PG&E’s service territory average 39 years and typically stand 40 to 45 feet high. However, in some areas they can

be up to 80 feet tall. Most are made of Douglas Fir, although some are derived from Western Red Cedar.

Ninety-five percent of the inspected poles will be treated to protect them from rot and decay, or reinforced with metal braces until the next inspection. “Then we seal it and tag it and move on… they are good for another 10 years,” said Pallatroni. Only a small number – less than 3 percent – of poles will need to be replaced.

In the dusty field, Rogers – an employee of Pennsylvania-based Utility Pole Technologies – is listening for sounds reverberating from his hammer test that will help determine how to proceed. He will take hammer to pole over and over again as he travels with his work crew through the Valley’s small farm towns and larger cities. Utility Pole Technologies has 105 of its 700 employees currently working on PG&E inspections.

With a recent inspection complete, a tag is affixed to a PG&E utility pole located south of Fresno. PG&E plans to inspect about 300,000 utility poles this year – slightly more than a year ago — as part of its Pole Test and Treat program.

Inspecting each pole takes just minutes. Workers typically dig 20 inches deep around each pole, then drill several holes with a 7/8-inch auger so a probe can be inserted into the pole to detect rot or decay. Plastic caps will cover each drilled hole.

When the work at each pole is finished, the hole is refilled with dirt and a shiny metallic marker – a little larger than a silver dollar – is affixed to the wood marking the date of inspection.

Douglas Tewalt, a Fresno-based distribution specialist in PG&E’s Pole Test and Treat Program, manages the test and treat inspection work.

“The inspection work requires coordination with our contractor, local PG&E district offices and customers, and while this inspection work can be cumbersome the process of maintaining the poles is critical for the continued safe delivery of power. The poles are a big part of our infrastructure,” said Tewalt.

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