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THE MAKING OF A POLE: A look inside the process

0922
 2015


Every Bluebonnet pole bears identification information — when and where it was manufactured, its dimensions and treatment process. Robby Ferguson brands the poles at Lufkin Creosoting Inc. Texas Electric Cooperatives’ plant in Jasper uses aluminum tags. (Sarah Beal photos)

By Ed Crowell
 
At first sight, with stacks of logs stretching across 50 acres, the plant looks like a sawmill. Then the smell hits, and it’s not that of freshly cut timber. The odor is sharp, smoky and unrelenting to the nostrils. Anyone who has driven past hot asphalt that’s just been put down on a road might guess it is that petroleum product. 
 
It’s creosote, the coal tar-based preservative that is used on 100,000 power poles produced every year at this Texas Electric Cooperatives plant on the east side of Jasper. 
 
With the buzz of bark peelers and circular saws, and later a soaking in creosote, the process might look like an undignified death for what were, just recently, stately 50- to 60-foot-tall trees that took three decades to grow. But these pines will live on for another 30 or 40 years — standing tall and straight in service of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s members. 
 
This is where the co-op’s wooden power poles are made. 
 
Southern yellow pines grown on tree farms in Louisiana are cut down at ground level, stripped of their branches and trucked here to be transformed into one of the co-op’s roughly 240,000 wood poles. 
 
While Bluebonnet’s inventory includes about 10,000 steel poles and a handful of concrete ones, wood poles are the workhorses in a service area that serves communities and rural areas in 14 Central Texas counties. They are less expensive, easier to install and have a proven track record in supporting about 11,000 miles of power lines. 
 
“Power poles are the physical backbone of electric delivery systems, particularly for rural electric cooperatives,” said Eric Kocian, Bluebonnet’s chief engineer and systems operations officer. “Drive through just about any part of the country and you will see mile after mile of wood poles supporting power lines. And not just power lines, but telephone, cable and fiber optic lines, too. Modern technology and conveniences are made possible and more affordable by strong, reliable wood poles.” 
 
As early as the 1840s, wood poles stretched across America, suspending the first form of wired communication — telegraph lines. Telephone lines followed and, for 80 years, wood poles have supported the lines bringing power to more than 900 electric cooperatives in the nation. 
 
While most Bluebonnet members give them scant thought, the ubiquitous poles occupy much of the co-op’s employee and contractor time. Crews outfit the poles with cross arms, transformers, insulators and a variety of wires. They climb them when necessary and routinely inspect them for damage or wear. 


Workers at a manufacturing plant flatten a space on the pole for mounting a cross arm of wood or fiberglass that supports power lines, insulators and other equipment. Bluebonnet attaches its own cross arms.
 
Other lines, called pole attachments, hang lower on the pole. They carry telephone or cable communications, not electricity. 
 
Wood poles, called “sticks” by the linemen, can last decades – unless the forces of nature, or pesky critters, interfere. 
 
The poles that stand like sentinels along Texas highways, dot lonely fields or are crammed together in cities were once grown on private and leased government land, mostly in Louisiana. 
 
Weather and soil determine how many trees will reach the height, diameter and degree of straightness required for utility poles. 
 
A well-managed forest may yield an abundance of 28- to 30-year-old trees. Those trees that are not tall or straight enough end up at lumber stores as two-by-fours or fence posts. 
 
“Poles are still a natural process and only so much can be done to tweak quality, size, etc.,” said Carlton Penney, director of manufacturing at the TEC plant. 
 
At tree farms, a contractor’s mobile machine, called a feller-buncher, cuts selected trees close to the ground. After tops and branches are removed, the trees are loaded onto trucks bound for pole plants. 
 
The TEC facility supplies poles to Bluebonnet and other Texas electric cooperatives. Some 60 trucks, hauling about 35 trees each, arrive there weekly. 
 
It’s a steady business in a fast-growing state where new residential and commercial electric hookups demand more and more miles of wires and new poles. 
 
Increasingly, underground electric lines power homes and businesses in new developments. They give neighborhoods a sleeker look, but they cost about five times more than installing lines on wood poles. That’s a price some homeowners and business owners aren’t willing to pay. 
 
Wood power poles generally last at least as long as it takes to grow the trees that will replace them. A pole may have to be replaced early because of decay, usually in the 10 percent of the pole that is below ground. Other problems for poles include vehicle accidents, new roads, wind storms, lightning strikes and internal weakening by a surprisingly aggressive culprit — woodpeckers. 
 
THE POLE PROCESS
 
Most of the 52 employees producing poles at the Jasper plant work outdoors. Trees of varying length are stacked on steel trams across the site. 
 
Brown trees with bark intact await peeling and final cuttings. Pale yellow trees, with aluminum identification tags noting manufacturer, date, length, treatment method and strength classification, await steam and creosote processing or other protective treatment. Black poles already treated with creosote wait for clawed forklifts to load them onto trucks, bound for buyers. 
 
On the periphery of the stacks are loud, clanging, grinding, open-air workstations. The heat near the action is oppressive, with only tin roofs for shade. Key operators for each workstation sit in air-conditioned, glassed-in control pods. 
 
Spinning the logs, which are carried by a conveyor belt through a rotating peeler machine with several butcher-sized knife blades, removes 1 to 2 inches: the bark and the cambium layer beneath it, where growth occurs. A few minutes later, a smooth pole emerges. Next, a yard-wide circular saw cuts the thick butt end. Workers measure the pole’s length and cut the narrower end to standard sizes. Forty feet is the most common desired length for Bluebonnet and some other co-ops. 
 
The peelings continue to a hammer mill that turns them into rough sawdust. A conveyor belt loads that into enclosed trailers, which are driven a short distance to a spot near the plant’s boilers where they become boiler fuel for the next major steps in the pole process — steaming and protective treatment. 
 
Five massive submarine-like metal cylinders lay side by side to hold at least 100 poles each. The poles are wheeled in on trams and the cylinder hatches shut tight with large hand wrenches.

 

Huge cylinders can hold at least 100 poles each. Poles are wheeled in on trams. The front hinged hatches are bolted shut with massive wrenches before the poles get bathed in pressurized steam then creosote or another preservative called CCA (chromated copper arsenate).
 
Pressurized steam then is applied to the poles for 17 hours to draw out the natural moisture that could lead to rot. Next up for 99 percent of the plant’s poles is the creosoting process, which takes 2 to 6 hours in the cylinders. The plant uses about 2 million gallons of creosote a year. 
 
Another preservative called CCA (chromated copper arsenate) is applied in a different cylinder to the other 1 percent of the poles. CCA leaves poles more brittle and harder to climb, according to linemen, and are better suited to colder, lowerhumidity climates. 
 
In liquid form, both preservatives can be dangerous to workers and the environment, so the chemicals are handled with great care, said Penney. Wastewater is treated on site and solids sent to a hazardous waste facility. 
 
TEC founded the pole-manufacturing operation in Lufkin in 1946 but moved the plant to Jasper to be closer to its sources of Louisiana timber. The Jasper plant, powered by electricity from the Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative, has been operating at this site, now nearly surrounded by houses in the pines, since 1964. 
 
KEEPING BLUEBONNET IN STOCK 
 
Bluebonnet usually has about 300 new poles at the co-op’s service centers in Red Rock, Brenham and Giddings that can be used for new construction or to replace a damaged pole. The average price for a 40-foot wood pole is about $350. 
 
The supply is overseen by Ken Godin, operations manager of the Techline Inc. warehouse in Red Rock that contracts with the co-op to stock lines, transformers and other hardware. 
 
Although Godin took the job a year after the Bastrop County Complex fire of 2011, he knows the value of having good pole suppliers. In the fire’s aftermath, Bluebonnet replaced 1,000 poles in a short time. 
 
Lufkin Creosoting Inc. is a backup pole manufacturer for Bluebonnet that Godin recently has used. That experienced facility not far from the Jasper plant adds another link to the co-op’s complex chain of power delivery that starts in a pine forest and ends when a member switches on a light. 


ALTERNATIVES TO WOOD

About 95 percent of Bluebonnet’s poles are wood. The rest are steel or, less frequently, concrete. Those stronger poles are needed for heavy loads or limited right-of-way workspace. The co-op’s steel poles are manufactured in Brenham and the concrete poles are made in Bellville.


 
The alternatives to wood Bluebonnet uses both steel and concrete poles occasionally. Steel is increasingly being used across the United States as engineering and corrosion prevention improves. Big transmission poles carry heavy wire loads on steel. And while the structural integrity of 45-foot steel poles is attractive, David Tobola, operations manager for Bluebonnet, said the cost — which can be three times the price of wood poles — is a limiting factor. Self-supporting and heavy concrete poles are rarely used. The labor costs are greater because a crane is necessary to erect them. Their upside: no corrosion or rot.


THE TROUBLE WITH WOODPECKERS

Woodpeckers can ruin a wood pole if their nests and accompanying holes go undetected. Bluebonnet crews look for damage from the birds and use wire mesh or a filler to limit their destructive ways. The pileated woodpecker in this Audubon drawing, along with the smaller red-headed woodpecker, are the culprits that frequent the Rosanky and Luling areas.


Towering, thick wood poles have a formidable, if relatively small, foe: crowsized pileated woodpeckers and smaller red-headed woodpeckers commonly found in some parts of the Bluebonnet service area.

They peck at live trees for insects but their larger excavations most often are in dead trees or power poles where they make nests once a year. The nest goes deep and usually has a second entrance. The next year, the same woodpeckers seek a different site for a new nest hole. They wreak so much damage, particularly around Rosanky and Luling, that poles must be replaced. So far this year 264 poles have had to be replaced by Bluebonnet because of woodpecker damage. Another 230 were caught in time to be fixed when crews inspected them.

“You could stick your whole arm into that hole,” said lineman Tim Grimm in describing the damage he has seen not far from the Red Rock service center.

David Tobola, operations manager at Bluebonnet, recalled a job near Rosanky where severe woodpecker damage required a pole to be replaced on a Friday.

“By Monday when we returned, there was another hole in the new pole. Over a three-day stretch it was completely demolished. We put a steel pole there,” he said.

When minimal woodpecker damage is spotted, the co-op uses wire mesh or a hole filler. The mesh can be wrapped around a hole that has been started to turn the woodpecker away. The expanding foam filler contains a deterrent chemical that stops the woodpecker from doing more damage.
 

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