How safe is that wood utility pole in your backyard?

A wood utility pole is supposed to last between 50 and 60 years assuming routine maintenance. But when it’s not inspected regularly or timely replaced, electrocution risk increases

Wood utility pole

If you have a wood utility pole in your backyard or in the front of your house, how can you tell whether it’s still safe?

A wood utility pole can be dangerous. Wood by its very nature rots and deteriorates over time. It can also develop fungi and insects. It’s open to chemical exposure and to pollution. Its integrity gets weakened by snow, rain, wind and ice.

That’s why your utility company is required to perform routine maintenance and safety inspections.

If your utility company doesn’t regularly send people out to inspect these wood utility poles, the day may come when it’s finally too weak to remain standing in a bad storm or a heavy wind.

The risk is that when this pole loses integrity, it can bring more than 100,000 volts down to the ground with it.

This is not theoretical. Unsafe utility poles have been one of the biggest causes of many of the electrocution lawsuits I have been involved in. Hundreds of people have been electrocuted and killed by unsafe utility poles and power lines that have fallen to the ground. These cases usually start with a structure that’s used beyond its means and capacity.

Who’s to blame for a weakened wood utility pole?

The problem stems from the many utility companies that choose to cut back on utility pole inspections.

Without routine inspections, the utility company won’t be on alerted by a utility worker when a wood utility pole has deteriorated into a dangerous and unsafe condition — although the power and utility companies are still on notice because they know how long these wood utility poles are supposed to safely last before they are replaced.

By opting to extend the lifespan of structures that are meant to be replaced, the public is put at grave risk.

There are too many utility poles that are still standing even though they’re way past their intended lifespan. For example, in the Northeast, the average life of a distribution pole is 56 years. Yet, some of these poles stay up much longer than that. There are still poles that are standing in urban areas in the Midwest and Northeast that are 85 years.

When should a wood utility pole be replaced?

By law, utility companies have a legal duty to replace a utility pole when its strength has deteriorated by half of its original manufacturing strength.

To find out how strong a wood utility pole is, utility companies are required to do these tests:

  • Hammer tests for sound: If a pole doesn’t sound of solid wood after being struck by a hammer, that’s an indication of decay.
  • Bore test: The side of the pole is drilled to determine its strength.
  • Drilling: Utility companies will dig out right below the surface of the soil, where the pole emerges, to check for rot or insect infestation.
  • Technology: Utility companies also use ultrasound and X-rays to check for pole decay.

How dangerous is the aging utility pole problem for the public?

In one of my electrocution lawyer blog posts from last year, I noted how California has fallen far behind in spending and infrastructure investment in utility pole replacement.

In Los Angeles, for example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) has 320,000 poles in its service territory — which serves approximately 1.4 million people — yet half of the poles are 50 years are older. Of these, approximately 87,000 — or about 27% — of the DWP utility poles have exceeded their 60-year lifespan, according to an article in the Los Angeles Daily News, “DWP lagging behind on replacing old power poles.”

To put things into perspective, utilities like this need to replace an average of about 5,000 poles a year. But at its peak, the DWP only replaced about half of that, as the results of a 2007 program (launched in response to major California power outages) showed.

What are the costs for unsafe poles?

The cost to replace a utility pole is approximately $42,000, based on the latest figures.

Compare that to the “cost” the utility company faces when an innocent and unsuspecting person is electrocuted and killed, or millions of dollars in property damage results.

However, a lawsuit comes after the fact, when it is too late.

That “cost” for the wrongful death or serious personal injury of a person or for significant property damage is also added to the costs utility companies face in regulatory penalties for willfully turning a “blind eye” to these dangers until after a tragedy occurs.

For example, San Diego Gas and Electric paid an estimated $2 billion-plus to victims of wildfires in 2007 that scorched wide swaths of Malibu and San Diego County, while Southern California Edison paid regulators $37 million after overloaded and termite-damaged poles fell in a high-wind area. California regulators and courts found the cause for the fires to be downed power lines, which burned down more than 1,000 homes.

Make no mistake, even with lawsuits and millions of dollars in legal compensation payments to wrongful death and electrical injury victims, utility and power companies are still deferring public safety inspections and maintenance on wood utility poles. They are continuing to defer needed replacement of unsafe utility poles.

When we litigate electrocution cases that stem from wood utility pole decay, our attorneys look at the inspection and maintenance histories. We look at the structural integrity of the poles and the planned replacement for the pole. We look at the poles themselves and pole top facilities and hardware, such as:

  • deterioration of the crossarms,
  • missing insulator ties,
  • deteriorated insulator pins,
  • broken or cocked insulators,
  • high splice counts that indicate prior failures and repairs of conductors,
  • hot spots,
  • flashovers, and
  • “floating phases,” where the conductor actually hangs below the top of the pole, but doesn’t fall all the way to the ground.

Things that the utility companies should have been doing or paying attention to in the first place — before it’s too late.

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