Planting the right tree to avoid conflicts with utilities

By Brian Cramer, Utility Arborist, Benton County, WA

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Planting a new tree? Choose the “right tree for the right location.” Tree branches that grow too close or touch utility power lines create hazardous or potentially hazardous situations. Trees near power lines that sway in heavy winds or with branches which may break out during storms are common causes of power outages. In extreme cases, conflicts between trees and power lines can be the cause of destructive wildfires.

The good news is that trees and power lines can co-exist and potential problems can be avoided by selecting and planting the right tree for the right location. Choosing the right tree for the right location means first evaluating the limitations and available space (both above and below ground) of the planting site, and then selecting a tree for which the mature size, shape, and other known tree characteristics can be accommodated by that site. Planting an inappropriate tree near power lines can prove dangerous and costly. However if you plan ahead, planting the right tree in the right location not only balances the benefits of trees with reliable utility service, but it can save time, money and headaches for both you and your utility provider now and into the future.

Each utility company has different tolerances for trees near overhead lines, so inquire with them first before you plant. Avoid planting trees directly under power lines. If the location is within 30 feet of power lines, choose trees that will grow no higher than 25 feet at maturity. There are many options of “power line friendly” trees available. Ask your local nursery for help or give your local utility a call—they will be happy to answer questions and provide you with more detailed information. Most utilities have a list of trees adapted to your climate that can be planted near power lines.

In addition to overhead lines, underground electrical equipment such as pad-mounted transformers and switch cabinets, or tops of underground vaults, need to be kept free of obstructions for service accessibility and for air circulation to prevent equipment failure. During power outages crews often find fences, shrubs and trees that have been placed or planted in front of electrical equipment. Removing these obstacles takes time and delays restoring power. The front of the pad mount transformer must be free of any obstructing material so that it is clearly visible. Most utilities have specific clearances around underground equipment and may have restrictions or guidelines for planting trees and shrubs nearby.

By planting the proper tree in the correct location, overhead and underground utility conflicts can be avoided. When we are all out planting trees this year, make sure to look up and down to avoid future conflicts between trees and utilities.

Note: Brian Cramer fills the role of “Utility Arborist (public or private)” on the Council.