In Washington state, where Tanner Electric Cooperative serves about 4,700 members in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, 70 or even 80 inches of rain can fall in a normal year.

That much moisture has an impact on an electrical distribution system, including its most basic hardware: the wooden poles and crossarms that carry the lines.

“Every area has got different conditions that can pose a challenge,” says Steve Walter, CEO and general manager of Tanner Electric, based in North Bend. “This area, you’re going to have wetter conditions. You put a wood product in the ground, you want to make sure it is what it’s supposed to be, that it has the capabilities it’s supposed to have.”

While a co-op’s service territory may not change much over the years, hardware requirements are always evolving, says James Carter, NRECA director of Wood Quality Control (WQC).

“Systems are changing,” he says.

Larger, taller poles and shorter spans are becoming more prevalent, requiring the wood products industry to adjust and co-ops to make decisions on poles that are unlike ones they’ve used in the past, Carter says.

His team’s job is to keep up with these changes and ensure its utility customers end up with products that perform well despite what nature throws their way.

WQC was created by NRECA in 1982 in response to a request from the Rural Electrification Administration (now the Rural Utilities Service, or RUS), which was receiving an increasing number of complaints from borrowers that their treated utility poles weren’t lasting as long as expected.

Among WQC’s functions are:

  • Performing RUS-required inspections at manufacturing plants and utility pole yards.
  • Providing input to RUS on its pole, crossarm, and quality-control standards for co-op borrowers.
  • Maintaining a list of approved pole and crossarm manufacturers.
  • Providing educational and technical support through seminars, on-site visits, and email or phone.

Revising standards

RUS has minimum standards for treated wood poles and crossarms and accepted procedures for in-plant quality control by manufacturers. WQC has been providing comments and input to RUS for about three years on a revision of its standards. These were published in the Federal Register in June 2019, but another revision is expected by the end of this year.

NRECA’s transmission and distribution advisory committee is also providing comments to RUS during the revision drafting.

“RUS has a very limited number of in-house staff to keep up with all of their specifications,” Carter says.

The public comment period for the new proposed revisions closed in August.

“Most of the changes are going to be minor,” Carter says. “They’re more of an update, condensing the specifications somewhat and clarifying certain portions of them.”

However, one significant note is that the oil-borne preservative system called DCOI was not included in the proposed specifications because the manufacturer missed the application window.

Interest in DCOI has been fed by concern about the supply of pentachlorophenol, usually referred to as penta, currently used in as many as half of the wood poles treated in North America, Carter explains.

The producer of penta has announced plans to shut down its sole manufacturing plant in Mexico by the end of 2021 and is seeking another manufacturing site in the United States, hence the utility industry’s interest in alternatives.

Because it wasn’t included in the revised RUS specifications, “if a co-op wanted to use DCOI, they would have to apply through their local RUS general field representative,” he says. “Then RUS would have to approve any use on a case-by-case basis.”

99% conformance

Timber Products Inspection, WQC’s primary contractor, conducts more than 3,000 inspections annually at manufacturing plants, distributorships, and utility pole yards.

“Every major pole and crossarm manufacturer in the country is participating in the program,” Carter says.

WQC can take disciplinary action against producers that fail to maintain RUS standards, including disqualifying them from the program’s approved vendor list. However, Carter says WQC prefers to help them avoid that.

“We try to work closely with them to provide guidance,” Carter says.

Their efforts have created a 99% conformance rate for products that come from participating manufacturers.

“They provide a level of testing and quality that I and my colleagues can lean on,” says Tanner Electric’s Walter. “We know that we have a pole that’s going to last as long as they say it’s going last, and we know the quality of the pole is going to be there. Otherwise, there’s no way to know that before it’s too late.”

Walter represents Washington on NRECA’s board and is also a WQC board member. He started in operations, working his way up from lineman to CEO, and he says that experience is one of the reasons he asked to be on the WQC board.

“I know how important it is,” he says. “Pole failure, line failure, that comes back on the cooperative, and, more importantly, it comes back on our members and the quality of life that we’re trying to give them.”

‘Peace of mind’

Carter says the trend among co-ops, which purchase between 500,000 and 800,000 poles and crossarms every year, is toward more robust systems.

“Instead of class five and six distribution poles, we’re seeing more systems using class ones, twos, and threes—those are bigger poles,” Carter says. “And they’re hanging more stuff on them. They’re starting to harden their systems, so they’re more resilient, and as part of that, they’re also starting to shorten their spans.”

The shift has forced manufacturers to adjust, he notes, but so far, “they’re still able to provide the systems what they need.”

Carter says about 80 percent of distribution poles are southern yellow pine, but for larger transmission poles over 70 feet in length, “the supply of southern yellow pine poles is extremely limited.”

Most of the very large treated-wood transmission poles used today are Douglas fir, western red cedar, or Alaska yellow cedar, he says, though he’s seeing an increasing number of large laminated wood poles being used as well.

Ken Norem, director of operations and engineering at Prairie Energy Cooperative, headquartered in Clarion, Iowa, has been working with WQC for 35 years. The program’s greatest value, he says, comes with “having that peace of mind about the poles that we purchase, knowing that they’re manufactured to certain specifications and you get that consistent, quality product.”

But the technical support WQC provides is another significant benefit to cooperatives, he adds. For example, Prairie Electric had traditionally used yellow pine poles, but found a few years back that it could get a good price on northern red pine.

“We talked to Jim (Carter) about it, what the pros and cons were, and we made a decision to start using two different species,” Norem says. “And we’ve had good luck with that.”

More recently, the co-op considered changing the way it performs groundline pole inspections, he says. Instead of digging down 18 inches to check poles, as has been standard, some co-ops have used a partial excavation where they go down only 6 inches, which can yield good results and save money. Prairie Electric was considering the move, but after consulting with WQC, it decided to continue excavating 18 inches where possible, based on the acidity and overall soil conditions in its service territory.

In a rapidly changing industry, Norem notes, WQC’s expertise makes his job easier.

“For someone who wears a lot of hats at a co-op, it’s one of those areas where you just don’t have to take a lot of time and effort worrying about it because Jim and his team are on top of things.”