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A Pole Story

Article submitted by Luke Batcho.

Have you ever wondered what those tall wooden things are on the side of the road, or in some cases, in your backyard? Those are called utility poles. Utility poles come in many different sizes and lengths. Their typical length is about 40-45 feet. Additionally, when the pole is installed, the hole is six feet deep.

Utility pole provided by Google Maps.

The pole you see pictured above is one I took from Google Maps out in the Levittown, Pennsylvania area. It’s an older pole from the 1960s with old equipment, which I’ll get into later. The pole above was pressure treated with a material called creosote.

Creosote is an oil-based substance that is black and very sticky. Back in the old days, and to a certain extent today, creosote was used on railroad ties. Most larger utilities don’t use it anymore because it is toxic. However, smaller utility companies who have a single town as a service area use them. Today, there is a treatment type out there that is still used, but on its way out. It was just banned last year. However, these companies can continue to make their products for an additional three years. Its name is pentachlorophenol or penta for short.

This is another oil-based substance that has been used by utilities since the 70s. When new, it has a nice orange color to it. When it ages, the substance fades from the top and settles at the bottom of the pole. These kinds of poles are getting phased out due to toxicity.

Today the most common pole you used across a great deal of utilities is chromated copper arsenate or CCA for short. This material is environmentally friendly, safe to touch, and water friendly. This pole has a nice jade green color to it: very appealing to the eye.

Anyways, all poles are pressure treated are made to last at least 30 years. Now there are elements that can shorten that like span like a car crash, bad weather, and insects. While penta poles were used a lot within the last 20 years, CCA is taking over.

Additionally, there are some notable equipment that are usually on a pole. On the top, there is something called an insulator. Insulators are materials that do not allow electricity to pass through them. Insulators come in a variety of materials such as porcelain, ceramic and glass. Back in the early 19th century, glass insulators were commonly used on poles beside railroad tracks as well as some utility companies. Then from the middle of the 19th century to about four years ago, ceramic and porcelain insulators took over. There is great deal of different colors and sizes of insulators like brown, white and brown and white together. The brown ones were used back in 50s and 60s while the brown and whites were used from around 1970-2019.

In 2020-2021, most companies stopped using porcelain/ceramic insulators. The reason being is that they would break, and chip while being transported and develop hairline cracks as they age. As electricity needs to stay in the wires, having hairline cracks or chips may give electricity a path to ground which is a hazard. On the bright side, this is my favorite kind of insulator to collect.

The latest and greatest insulator that most utilities are switching to is called Hendrix. Hendrix insulators are made from plastic/silicone and are much lighter than porcelain or ceramic. Plus, they don’t chip, and they are cheaper than the alternative. I don’t have this insulator yet but hope to sometime in the future. Insulators have threads that run through the middle of them so you can screw them onto things known as pins. These pins are hot dipped galvanized metal with the threads are covered with a black plastic which makes insulators easier to screw on.

Now, there are two types of pins: one you put through a crossarm, and another called a ridge pin. Ridge pins are bolted directly to the pole and are at the top with a nut and washer. The other pin is bolted through the crossarm with a bolt, washer, and nut. Crossarms are typically eight feet long and are placed on the pole below the ridge pin, just a bit heavier than a two by four. Some crossarms can be 10 or 12 feet long depending on what’s on the pole. They are also pressure treated with penta, so they have a nice orange color to them. Usually, the crossarm has wood or metal braces holding it in place. These are personally my favorite kind of crossarms to look at when I’m out and about. Since penta is on its way out, lots of utilities have switched to fiber glass crossarms. While being much lighter, they also don’t need braces to hold it in place. They come in two colors: brown and a whitish silver. Personally, I prefer looking at wood crossarms over fiberglass as I’m driving/walking around.

Here is a drawing of an older pole with ceramic insulators, wood crossarm and metal braces.

Utility pole drawing with ceramic insulators, wood crossarm and metal braces. Drawn by Luke Batcho.

As you can probably tell at this point, I’m very interested in poles. When I was three years old, I looked out the window and asked my mom what they were. She said they were utility poles and I’ve been interested ever since. I’m very keen on learning as much as I possibly can about them. About 10 years ago, I would design makeshift poles in my back yard out of stuff from the hardware store. Then I moved on from that and started drawing them and currently have close to 20 sketchpads. I was considering working for a utility but then I learned that I would be working with live wires which deterred me. Also, I’m not a fan of heights.

While I am a marketing major, recently I’ve been thinking about becoming an electrical engineer at some point in the future. I was reading up on it and I would be designing poles in a computer program called CAD. Essentially, I would be making poles through the computer and building distribution systems with them which sounds awesome. Here’s some more pictures I took: The green pole is a drawing while the other is a picture I took.

Green utility pole drawn by Luke Batcho.

Utility pole. Photo taken by Luke Batcho.