Tall and Skinny and Full of Problems: What is eating your utility poles?
Today, there are an estimated 134 million utility poles standing tall in the U.S. alone, almost one for every other person in the country. To say that all exist in varying states of repair and disrepair is an understatement. A wide variety of issues from age to wildlife can befall your utility poles. We have collected just a few examples that might be head-turning.
Because 1/3 of a utility poles’ length is buried beneath the ground, infestation by moisture and wood-loving insects like termites can be a common occurrence. Termites congregate in colonies, where in some species, a mature queen may produce 20,000 to 30,000 eggs a day. That is a lot of six-legged cellulose-eaters making a light lunch out of the base of your utility poles, and without intervention, a lot of downed poles waiting to happen. Just like in your home, early intervention is key, so a proactive field survey of pole health with an eye for infestation is vital.
Take a look at a utility pole in the rain. You will notice a good deal of water runs down its sides. When that water hits a bolt or something else embedded into the wood, the moisture will run into the pocket around the attachment and can remain wet over time. That is when fungal spores can enter the pole and decay can develop. What type of spores? There are a lot of possibilities. In case you are interested, someone even wrote a book on it. Really however, it does not matter the family, genus or species, a rotten utility pole is a weakened utility pole, and a problem.
Like termites, carpenter ants love damp, dead wood in which to build nests. Unlike termites however, carpenter ants do not actually consume wood; just dig it out of their way in pursuit of a new home. The most common type of carpenter ant to be rapidly hollowing out your utility poles for their own comfort? Camponotus pennsylvanicus, the black carpenter ant.
Holes in utility poles come primarily from two sources: attachers and woodpeckers. With demand for space on our nation’s poles at a premium these days, it is no surprise the number of holes drilled into utility poles is increasing, potentially damaging structural integrity. Alternatively, Woody and his friends are also an issue in many places, drilling and hiding food in any open spot. "Sometimes it is like a Swiss-cheese pole, full of holes that are filled with acorns," remarks Bruce Morris, a seasoned Southern California Edison maintenance employee. What can you do? Short of switching to fiberglass poles, relocating the offending bird, outfitting the pole with wire mesh or hanging shiny, dangly objects near a favorite drilling spot can help.
While the average utility pole life is meant to be somewhere between 20 and 50 years, some are 50 to 60 years old, making age a significant issue. Older poles can harbor any or all of the above-mentioned problems; the older the pole, the more likely it will have experienced at least one of these potential pests or problems.
Actions you can take now
A comprehensive field inventory of each and every utility pole in your system, coupled with the creation of an accurate database of information is the only sure way to keep a close eye on what could be eating, living in or working on any of the 134 million 40-foot cylinders dotting the landscape.