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Right-of-Way Clearing - Frequently Asked Questions

Why does Polk-Burnett clear power lines?

To provide reliable service

  • Polk-Burnett's major cause of power interruptions and outages are trees and vegetation that come in contact with power lines.Trees or brush that touch electric lines create short circuits that cause your lights to blink, clocks to be interrupted, and computerized devices to lose information. During storms, trees often fall across lines causing outages by breaking lines or short circuiting them. When major storms occur, the overwhelming number of fallen trees needing to be removed causes widespread outages to last much longer than they would otherwise.

To control the cost of service

  • Clearing of power lines is one of Polk-Burnett's largest expenses. It is one of the reasons that Polk-Burnett's fixed charges are higher than those of neighboring utilities that have many more customers per mile of line and, as a result, less clearing cost per customer. By permanently removing trees and tall shrubs from the rights-of-way, the ongoing cost of clearing activities is significantly reduced.
  • Trees and brush interfering with power lines raises costs in other ways. It takes longer for line crews to find problems and make repairs if they cannot see or get to problems. Also, trees and brush that touch power lines actually waste electricity, which Polk-Burnett members ultimately pay for, by providing a path for it to flow into the ground.

To protect people and property

  • A spark from trees and brush touching power lines can cause fires — especially during dry conditions. The same trees that you might want to protect from cutting can become the ignition source of a forest fire that might also threaten your home or cabin.
  • Since trees and brush contain water, they can conduct electricity. If those trees or brush touch high-voltage wires, they are subjected to voltages of up to 7,200 volts. If the tree conducted even a fraction of that energy, it could be fatal to someone touching that tree or to a child who was climbing it.

Why must you clear trees and shrubs so far away from the lines?

To meet the demands of members for reliable power, Polk-Burnett modified the clearing program in 1997 for its nearly 2,100 miles of overhead distribution line. The program calls for a standard clearing width of 40 feet (20 feet on each side of the line) for overhead distribution line except in maintained yards, as defined by Polk-Burnett, where the clearing width is 20 to 30 feet depending upon the type of line being cleared. This is necessary for several reasons:

  • Costs are reduced if trees and brush can be removed far enough away that clearing is not needed again for at least five years. During the initial clearing program where Polk-Burnett reclaimed its right-of-way, it cost as much as 1.2 million per year.
  • Service reliability is improved if trees and brush are far enough away from lines to prevent any possible contact.
  • Work crews also need adequate access to lines to conduct repairs quickly and safely.

How do I know what will be removed or trimmed and when it will happen?

Currently, only the primary, high-voltage overhead distribution lines serving Polk-Burnett members are being cleared under the clearing program. The primary lines, of which several types exist, are the main lines that provide electric service to you and your neighbors. The primary lines supply power up to the transformer that serves your home, cabin or business.

If you have overhead electric service, transformers can be identified by looking for the large can near the top of the pole closest to your home, cabin or business. The line from the transformer to your service location is the low-voltage secondary or service wire. Trees and brush are only trimmed when they are in contact with the secondary lines or when requested by the member. Secondary lines are insulated and are not considered high voltage for purposes of clearing activities.

Before any main line work is done on your property, you will receive a notification (postcard or letter) that a contractor will soon be in the area doing routine maintenance on the power lines.  If the contractor determines that the work is routine maintenance, then the original notification will serve as your only notification. If the contractor determines that there needs to be tree removal or major side trimming, the contractor will make contact with you before the removal and/or major trimming work begins. You can discuss what clearing will be performed on your property and various options that may be available depending on the situation. No notification is made for trimming of secondary lines.

How are trees and shrubs selected for clearing?

Generally, all standing vegetation within the designated clearing zone will be removed. Even brush and shrubs that will not grow to the height of the lines will need to be removed to provide line crews with adequate access to the line for inspection and maintenance.

Available program options are made on a case-by-case basis. However, any options granted must enable Polk-Burnett to accomplish its primary goal of maintaining safe and reliable electric service. These options can be discussed with the contractor performing the clearing when you are contacted prior to the work.

Why are some trees trimmed and others removed?

To accomplish its goal of providing reliable electric service, Polk-Burnett will not trim trees to grow around the lines. Trees need to be removed if any portion of the trunk is located within the clearing zone, which is 20 feet on each side of the primary line except, at Polk-Burnett’s discretion, in maintained yard areas where the clearing zone is either 10 feet on each side for single-phase lines or 15 feet on each side for multi-phase lines.

Healthy trees outside the clearing zone are trimmed if their branches encroach into the cleared area. Also, trees located outside of the clearing zone that are dead, dying or leaning toward the lines will be removed if they are a threat to primary overhead lines.

Trees from which fruit is harvested annually such as apple and plum trees will be pruned in a “V” shape away from the lines to obtain proper clearance from the power line. This does not include species such as pin cherry, choke cherry or flowering crab trees.

What and where can I replant so it won’t be cut in the future?

Polk-Burnett's planting guidelines can help you determine where to plant trees and shrubs to avoid becoming a hazard to power lines.

All plantings must be placed far enough away that the mature tree or shrub branches cannot grow into or over the cleared area to prevent the removal of side branches which can affect the aesthetics of the trees or shrubs.

Any trees or shrubs planted within 15 feet on either side of the lines in maintained yard areas or within 20 feet of either side of the lines in other areas will be removed during the next clearing cycle. In addition, any vegetation remaining within the cleared area is at continuous risk for damage without compensation if the lines must be accessed for operation, maintenance or replacement.

What happens to waste from the clearing activities?

Polk-Burnett’s contractors have a clear set of standards for handling debris from clearing operations. Wood that is large enough for firewood or sale by the owner can be cut to 100-inch lengths upon request and will be left for the owner’s use. Smaller debris generally is spread or piled along the cleared area except near homes or cabins, where it is chipped and removed. Special requests should be discussed when the contractor contacts you about clearing activities. On occasion, Polk-Burnett has wood chips available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Why don’t you put all those lines underground so you don’t have to cut the trees?

It’s simply too expensive. The initial cost of running lines underground throughout rural areas is prohibitively high. You and all Polk-Burnett members already have a significant investment in the existing system. In addition, the reliability of underground lines has yet to be proven. Many of the underground lines installed in the 1970s have begun to fail prematurely, which leads to additional expense to replace them. Underground lines have half the useful life of overhead lines.

I have a tree that I want to cut down, but it is near the power lines. Will Polk-Burnett cut it down for me?

It depends on each individual situation. Polk-Burnett will only consider cutting down those trees that threaten the integrity of the electric system. When a member requests to have a tree(s) trimmed or removed, a Polk-Burnett employee from the right-of-way department will visit the location to determine if it is Polk-Burnett’s responsibility and if it can be safely removed. Polk-Burnett will not cut down a tree if there is any danger of the tree falling on a structure or causing any kind of damage to the member’s property (buildings, landscaped areas, permanent yard ornaments, etc.). If this is the case, you will be able to schedule to have the power line dropped, free of charge, while you or your tree contractor performs your work. If Polk-Burnett does trim or remove a tree(s), the tree will only be trimmed/dropped to remove the threat to the power lines. Clean up of any debris and site restoral are the responsibility of the member.

The trees in my yard are starting to touch the power lines to my home or cabin. Will Polk-Burnett trim the trees away from these power lines?

Yes. If a member calls to have trees trimmed away from power lines, Polk-Burnett will perform this work at no charge when a crew is in the area and as time permits. Clean up of any debris and site restoral are the responsibility of the member.

If you have any questions or concerns about Polk-Burnett's Clearing activities, please contact the Manager of Rights of Ways at 800-421-0283, ext 329 or via email.

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