Protect new trees by planting them in safe places

“Why can’t they just leave my trees alone?” If you’ve ever wondered that while watching a tree-trimming crew change the look of your favorite tree, you’ll find the reason in rural Ohio. Just after 4 p.m. on the steamy Thursday afternoon on Aug. 14, 2003, a sagging transmission power line came in contact with a nearby tree. In minutes, 45 million Americans and 10 million Canadians had no air conditioning or any electric power.

Transmission lines are critical to the U.S. power grid. These lines crisscross North America, some held up by slim poles, while others hang below towers resembling science-fiction robots. The giant wires carry enough electricity to power more than a million homes, moving from distant power plants to electric co-ops and other users.

Federal regulators placed most of the blame for the 2003 blackout on technology that failed to reroute power properly, but they also recognized the problem would not have happened if the tree had been a safe distance away from the line. The outage event led to strict rules your electric co-op and other electric utilities are required to follow to prevent large-scale blackouts.

Co-ops are required to document that every piece of equipment and every foot of power line are a safe distance from trees and vegetation. If your home received a visit from a tree-trimming crew, it was because your trees were closer to power lines than the rules allow.

The last thing your co-op wants to do is alter or remove part of your landscaping. They’d rather help you avoid conflict between electricity and greenery altogether. How? By reminding you to plant your new trees, shrubs or other vegetation where they won’t grow into power lines or other electric equipment.

Whether you want to plant a tree or something else, it’s helpful to consider how it’s going to grow over the next 20-30 years. Consider both the eventual height and how wide the canopy of branches is likely to spread.

Even small trees and shrubs should be planted at least 20 feet from power lines. If you can’t plant that far away, choose a species that won’t top out at more than 15 feet high. Trees that will be 40 feet high or less should be at least 25 feet from power lines, and larger trees should be at least 50 feet away.

Thinking about what’s above the ground is only part of tree-planting safety. Before you grab a shovel, call 811 to make sure you won’t accidentally cut into any underground utility lines. The service will send people to your property to mark the approximate locations of utilities. Because it can be challenging to pinpoint exact locations, only use hand tools while digging within a couple feet of the markings.

Trees aren’t the only type of vegetation requiring thoughtful planting. If there’s a pad-mounted transformer in your yard, you might be tempted to hide it behind colorful flowers and shrubs. Unfortunately, if there’s
a problem, crews will need clear access to the transformer. That’s why you must keep plantings at least 10 feet from the transformer’s doors and 4 feet from its sides. Otherwise, crews may need to remove part of your landscaping.

Finally, if you notice your trees have grown dangerously close to power lines, don’t reach for your chainsaw. Let your electric co-op know. Tree trimming is more dangerous than most people realize, and you don’t want to find yourself in the emergency room or be the person who plunges your neighbors into the dark.

Photo courtesy of Laura Ribas, Lewis Tree Trimming.