Privately owned utility poles must be the most underappreciated part of getting electricity to the cottage, aside from maybe the bill. “For most private pole owners, if the pole’s standing and they have power, that’s good enough,” says Evan Binley of Central Utility Services, in Duncan, B.C. “We get panicked calls, though, when a pole’s on the ground and the utility’s about to cut the power.”
Utilities inspect their own poles, but those on private land often get much less attention. Many cottagers don’t realize they may own parts of their power line—until they’re shocked by a four- or five-figure replacement bill.
“Reach out to your utility,” says Shawn Martel, the general manager of the Electrical Safety Authority for Ontario’s eastern region. Hydro One customers, for example, can call in the individual white plastic barcode tacked on every pole to confirm the ownership, age, and condition when it was last inspected.
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Glass-half-full cottagers will see pole ownership as an opportunity for more puttering. Grab a pair of binoculars, a shovel or trowel, a large screwdriver and three-pound hammer, and conduct a pole health survey.
Trouble signs include a lean of more than 10 degrees, guy wires that are slack, and poles with burn marks, deep perpendicular cracks, impacts from tree limbs or vehicles, and visible decay. Using your binoculars, scout the top of the pole for loose hardware and woodpecker holes—woodpeckers know where to find insects and decay.
Next, clear a few inches of soil at the base and look for “shell rot,” decay around the pole’s periphery. Does the pole narrow below grade? Can you shove a screwdriver deep into the base or find cavities through cracks? Sound the pole by striking it with a hammer, from the base up to about chest height. “If it sounds like a drum, it’s hollow,” Binley adds. “If there’s a thud, that’s a good indication the pole is solid.”
Hire a utility arborist to prune any tree limbs closer than four metres from the wires and call a powerline contractor for other repairs. Always stay three metres away from a live powerline, and 10 metres clear of a downed wire. “It’s not really the pole that’s a concern, it’s what it’s holding,” Martel says. “I’ve seen poles rot right off at the base, leaving only the lines holding them up.”
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Four tips for inspecting your utility poles
Woodpeckers don’t peck holes just for fun. If you see their handiwork, they’ve found insects—and rot—in the wood.
Are the guy wires missing the bright yellow guy guards? Replace them to prevent collisions.
Give the pole a whack with a heavy hammer. A dull thud is a good sign; a resonant, hollow boom sounds like trouble.
Look for a bar code or ID plate with a pole number. Call your power utility to ask about the pole’s age and inspection history.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Cottage Life.
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