Electric utilities are responsible for trimming trees near power lines. They are required to do so by the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) which has been adopted in most states.
The responsibility of trimming trees near power lines is a serious one for utilities because the failure to keep trees and tree limbs away from power lines could result in injury or death due to electric shock or electrocution.
It’s important to note that property owners may also have some responsibility arising from the process for trimming trees near power lines.
What is the purpose of trimming trees near power lines?
There are serious safety issues that arise when trees are too close to power line structures.
What happens is that the weight of the trees or the foliage becomes too much for the power lines, and when there’s a storm with high winds or heavy snow and/or ice accumulation, the trees or foliage will fall and they will take down the power lines along with them.
This poses an immense electrocution hazard to anyone in proximity which is why trimming trees near power lines is a necessity to keep everyone in close proximity safe. People who step into their normally safe backyards, sidewalks and driveways – and even to cross the street – never expect to encounter this type of hazard.
This safety issue is always exacerbated when utility companies fail to inspect and maintain their power line structures. This is probably the biggest reason why people are electrocuted.
What is the utility’s responsibility to make sure trees near power lines are trimmed back?
Utility companies are required by the NESC to trim trees and branches in proximity to power lines and in anticipation of forecasted growth in cycles.
Applicable laws and safety codes require that power companies not only repair the conditions on their power lines that they know to be defective or dangerous, but also that they use reasonable means and inspection schedules to find deficiencies in their systems.
Trimming trees near power lines and sometimes removing trees altogether is another way to discover dangerous conditions and deficiencies, as well as to reduce the risk of downed wires caused by contact with tree branches or the branches breaking off during inclement weather like ice and snow storms.
The Vegetation Management rule in the NESC’s 2017 Edition imposes the following tree-trimming requirements on utilities:
“Vegetation management should be performed around supply and communication lines as experience has shown to be necessary. Vegetation that may damage ungrounded supply conductors should be pruned or removed.” (Rule 218.A.1)
To show how the rule on the responsibility for trimming trees near power lines has changed over the years for utilities, consider the versions of the rule from 1997 and 2007:
- 1997: “Trees which may interfere with ungrounded supply conductors should be trimmed or removed. Note: Normal tree growth, the combined movement of trees and conductors under adverse weather conditions, voltage, and sagging of conductors at elevated temperatures are among the factors to be considered in determining the extent of trimming required.” (NESC, 1997 edition, Tree Trimming Section 218.A.1)
- 2007: “Vegetation that may damage ungrounded supply conductors should be pruned or removed. Vegetation management should be performed as experience has shown to be necessary. NOTE: Factors to consider in determining the extent of vegetation management required include, but are not limited to: line voltage class, species’ growth rates and failure characteristics, right-of-way limitations, the vegetation’s location in relation to the conductors, the potential combined movement of vegetation and conductors during routine winds, and sagging of conductors due to elevated temperatures or icing.” (NESC, 2007 edition, Part 2 – “Safety Rules for the Installation and Maintenance of Overhead Electric Supply and Communication Lines,” Section 21, Rule 218.A.1)
What role do property owners have with the responsibility of trimming trees near power lines?
After the trees have been trimmed by the utility company, the property owners may have to carry out and pay for the clean up on their property.
This is not uncommon.
In many states, utilities have what is known as a prescriptive easement which means the utility can enter onto private property to access power lines and the utility can do so without the property owner’s consent.
Additionally, after having allowed the utility company onto their property to trim trees near power lines, the property owner may be required to dispose of (and pay for the disposal of) trees, branches and/or foliage or vegetation that has been trimmed and cut down by the utility.