While utility poles are essential for our modern-day conveniences, they can be equally dangerous as they are necessary. With a variety of exposed wires and voltage transformers, they can be extremely unsafe if dealt with incorrectly.
There are two variations of utility poles, they can either be above-ground, as 35-foot tall poles or buried six feet in the ground and spaced 125 feet apart. With above-ground poles, you need to be concerned with exposed live wires, while with underground poles, concerns arise when you’re digging or when the wire insulation starts to decay.
Below we will explain the different parts of utility poles and the dangers that each of them present. Let’s dive in!
Parts of a Utility Pole
The wooden or fiberglass poles in themselves aren’t always the dangerous part of utility poles, oftentimes the danger comes from the wires and equipment that the poles host.
Transformers are the large, metal, canister-shaped boxes that are attached to the side of the utility poles. Besides the pole itself, transformers are the largest part of a utility pole; a transformer is used to convert high-voltage electricity to low-voltage electricity. The stoves, phones, and electronics we use in our homes and business all need low-voltage electricity to run, making transformers invaluable.
Transmission wires, also known as conductors, carry the high-voltage electricity to the transformers to process and convert to low-voltage electricity. The electricity that transmission wires carry ranges from 69 to 500 kilovolts, making it unusable before it’s converted to a lower-voltage variation.
Distribution wires carry freshly converted low-voltage electricity to their destination, whether that be a house, business or school. The electricity running through these wires is typically between 4 and 25 kilovolts – which is significantly less than the voltage rating prior to being converted at the transformer.
Communication lines are used purely for transferring cable television, broadband, and telephone wires to homes and other requested destinations.
Now that you have an understanding of the major components of utility poles, let’s take a look at why they can be so dangerous.
Dangers with Voltage
The most obvious danger of utility poles is the electric voltage they carry. Like we mentioned above, the electricity sent through distribution wires is anywhere from 4-25 kilovolts. While that is significantly less energy than what was there before it passed through the transformer, it is still enough to kill a person or severely injure them.
Voltage from utility poles is especially dangerous because you don’t have to be touching the pole or wire to receive an electric shock. In fact, you can actually be shocked by simply walking! That’s because utility poles can easily touch a tree branch and pass the electric voltage to the tree and surrounding ground.
When utility poles and wires are underground, there is a whole different set of voltage hazards to contend with. Like above-ground poles, underground utility lines also have insulated wires that run from transformer to transformer. Unfortunately, the insulation protecting the wire can degrade, exposing the live wire to the soil and causing stray voltage.
This stray voltage can travel throughout the ground and attach onto metal surfaces like manhole covers and drain grates. These metal surfaces become electrically charged and can easily shock people and pets, especially when it’s raining, leading to injury and death.
Although it’s lucky we were introduced to electricity decades ago, it also means that many of our utility poles are equally as old. Older poles are liable to fall due to wood rot, insect damage and wind compromise. However, newer poles aren’t exempt from leaning or falling either! Depending on the wood treatment used, utility poles will have different lifespans and face different decay issues. Even if you aren’t standing under a pole when it’s leaning or falling, leaning utility poles can cause major damage to homes, cars and other structures in its path of destruction.
In an attempt to preserve the wood and prolong the life of utility poles, preservatives are often applied to wooden utility poles. Unfortunately, many of these preservatives contain harmful chemicals, which can cause health issues among humans and pets, and cause irreversible environmental damage. In fact, many of the preservative chemicals used can cause birth defects, cancer and reproductive problems. If you’re concerned with a utility pole affecting your soil or water source, you should contact an environmental expert to test for the most common chemical toxins.
For those who work with electricity and utility poles as their job, we have a training course for you! Our Electrical Safety Training Course is full of applicable safety tips and is accepted for your electrical license renewal. Start your safety training now!