Smart Choice: Know the right tree for the right place

By Jeff Gavin | Mar 15, 2021
SmartChoice-NW Line JATC 1.jpg




Educator. Botanist. Comforter. Electrical line contractors often assume any combination of these roles when property owners question necessary tree pruning or removal. The adage “power is king” gets complicated when right tree, right place isn’t understood.

Scott Barnes knows the challenges of tree trimming. He serves as the assistant director—­tree for the Northwest Line Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NW Line JATC) in Vancouver, Wash. His organization’s curriculum includes a power line clearance and tree trimmer program. NW Line JATC is governed by the Northwest Line Constructors Chapter of NECA and IBEW.

NW Line JATC apprentices are trained in power line clearance and tree trimming.

“Trees are the chief obstructions to power lines, but how they are handled is different in every part of the country, even from municipality to municipality,” Barnes said. “Our biggest challenges with customers are trees. Everyone has an emotional attachment with her or his tree. That’s difficult when it’s the wrong tree in the wrong place for power lines. For example, if homeowners select a poplar tree and plant it too close to or under a power line, they selected a tree that grows very tall, very fast. We will always be going out to trim it as it matures.”

“We have big fir trees in our part of the country. Back East, they have problems with other tree types. There isn’t forethought when trees are selected to line streets or placed in a yard. No one is looking 10 to 15 years ahead to see how big that tree will get, how full or how far its branches will extend,” Barnes said. “Sometimes with new construction, the builder might select the wrong tree. There are a lot of pretty trees for curb appeal, but pick the wrong one and a lot of maintenance will need to be done by us and charged back to the ratepayer through the utility.”

Emotional attachment

Barnes finds that homeowners develop an emotional connection to trees they planted.

“Homeowners may have built a relationship with a 20-year-old tree, something planted by a grandfather or played on by children,” Barnes said. “Tree trimming is viewed as very invasive. Unless power is lost due to branches falling into power lines during a storm, the homeowner is going to be resistant to any major tree trimming or removal. That same tree that needs to be severely trimmed or removed may also result in a loss of privacy for the homeowner. Quite simply, when their tree is growing into the wires, property owners don’t get it’s a danger. When they lose power for six hours or six days because of fallen limbs, they might get it.”

Julie Janoski is the plant clinic manager for the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago in Lisle, Ill. She finds education is paying off.

“Educating people about tree selection and tree care is an ongoing process,” she said. “We are now getting calls from people attuned to power lines. Awareness is taking hold, but has just begun. The disconnect is when the power company comes out to trim a tree that aesthetically doesn’t please the homeowner. Owners might see it as a hacking instead of a trimming. Pruning remains a big issue.”

Janoski added that a simple thing such as using a pruning saw, when applicable, versus a chain saw can calm nervous homeowners.

“Having a certified arborist to prune without damaging the tree and knowing when to prune can go a long way,” Janoski said. “For instance, arborists know oaks and elms should be pruned in the winter because of disease factors.”

If most power lines rise 25–30 feet in the air, the rule of thumb is selecting a tree with a mature height less than that. The tree will maintain its natural shape and not fall into wires.

“There are other considerations beyond tree height,” Janoski said. “If it’s boggy under your power line, you can’t pick a tree that needs dry soil. Some trees need shade. Another option is selecting larger shrubs trimmed up to small trees,” such as American hazelnut, bottlebrush buckeye, viburnum and witch hazel.

The short of it

In Spokane, Wash., contractors trim trees based on species-specific guidelines. Other municipalities trim based on a one-size-fits-all protocol. Sometimes utilities and municipalities come into conflict, even down to a neighborhood level. For example, the Irvington neighborhood in the northeast section of Portland, Ore., has battled with power companies to be able to set its own tree trimming rules.

“This is a high-dollar, older neighborhood,” Barnes said. “In Irvington, an arborist must be present for any tree trimming and facilitate what’s going to happen.”

Often, settings form attitudinal differences toward pruning.

“In more rural areas, we might be able to trim as much as we want,” Barnes said. “Our line contractors are constantly working for the best of all worlds for everyone.”

Picking the right tree or shrub requires some education for contractors, power companies and property owners alike. While there might be apt tree species that are region-free, some are region-friendly.

In the Pacific Northwest, shorter evergreens such as smaller varieties of western arborvitae, dwarf spruces and smaller pines might be good choices complementing their bigger brother tree types. In the Midwest or East Coast, considerations might include flowering trees, ones with colorful fruit or attractive fall foliage. Interesting deciduous species include magnolias, red buckeye, American hornbeam and flowering dogwood, to name a few.

Having a conversation

Many utilities have their own arborists and tree interference public education efforts advising on better tree selection, location and sound planting.

Electric utility Commonwealth Edison, serving Chicago and Northern Illinois, educates its customers on tree trimming, planting, vegetation management and other concerns. It speaks to how trees and other vegetation cause about 13% of all electric service interruptions. ComEd’s vegetation management crews are trained in proper arboricultural pruning techniques that factor in species, growth rate and location in relation to overhead wires, including tree health, site conditions and regulatory requirements before beginning any trimming project.

ComEd contractors perform their work in accordance with the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Standard A300, “Part 1: Tree, Shrub, and Other Woody Plant Management—Standard Practices (Pruning).” Under this standard, contractors apply directional (lateral) pruning, which recognizes characteristics of each tree when determining the extent of pruning needed. The International Society of Arboriculture, Atlanta, recognizes directional pruning as a “Best Management Practice.” ComEd also educates customers on right-of-way issues. The utility’s comprehensive efforts have earned Tree Line USA recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation, Lincoln, Neb.

ComEd often collaborates with the Morton Arboretum. One effort includes “The Power of Smart Planting: A Guide to Planting Near Power Lines.” This free print and online publication is an educational resource for vegetation management. It is also a mini manual for selecting vegetation that respects power lines and box access while being aesthetically pleasing.

The Morton Arboretum website offers a tree selection guide, which has an option for finding the best tree and shrub when planting under power lines. Other entities such as the University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., do this as well. Morton‘s Gateway to Tree Science is a half-mile trail that serves as an interactive outdoor exhibit. One component shows tree and shrub selection around power lines.

The Morton Arboretum’s Gateway to Tree Science outdoor exhibit shows best practices and tree selection close to power lines.

“ComEd came out and installed power poles along the trail to help visualize best practices for tree planting along transmission lines,” Janoski said. “As you walk the trail, you’ll see trees with branches that have grown into the lines. Better choice examples are also planted under the lines. The trail allows visitors to see the benefits of good pruning, too.”

Pacific Power, Portland, Ore., is one of a handful of utilities offering a tree replacement program for qualifying customers. Under the program, customers who agree to let the utility cut down a problem tree receive coupons good at participating local nurseries toward young and better-suited trees that can be planted on the same site without interfering with transmission lines. Pacific Power serves parts of California, Oregon and Washington.

Front-line training

Tree care and line interference is a very dynamic part of NW Line JATC’s curriculum.

“We cover—among many things—correct and effective pruning techniques, when to remove trees, public relations and customer interaction,” Barnes said. “You try to hold the best discussion with a homeowner concerned with their tree.”

Under its Trees & Biology Curriculum, NW Line JATC apprentices learn growth and trimming patterns for coniferous and deciduous species, tree identification techniques, directional and proper pruning for tree health, soil types, tree and site pairing, and more.

“The apprenticeship is a great solution to educating the people that do the work,” Barnes said. “We want our apprentices learning best tree maintenance judgment.”

While Barnes feels proper tree selection and maintenance needs, at a minimum, to be a conversation held between the utility and the homeowners, “broadening the tent” may be the best tactic to increasing better tree and vegetation management around power lines.

He wonders if educating builders and real estate agents might make sense so they can advise prospective homeowners. Janoski suggested adding in landscape contractors and landscape architects, too.

Be it smaller, deciduous trees, evergreens or decorative tall shrubs, property owners have many options to make better choices for trees and vegetation under or near power lines. Right tree, right place should rule the day.

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].





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