Steel fights for goal; wood on defense

By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

As long as there have been poles to carry lines, there have been linemen to climb the poles: At the annual Florida Lineman’s Rodeo, 19 teams representing eleven municipal utilities and electric cooperatives in Florida participated in a series of events, including a journeyman pole climb, switch and transformer replacement races, and a journeyman hurt-man rescue. Picture by Chris M. Gent, courtesy of Kissimmee Utility Authority. Click here to enlarge image

“There is some very rough terrain in Licking County [Ohio] and replacing poles is difficult,” stated George Manning, chief operating officer of Energy Cooperative.

“In 1992 we decided to try steel distribution poles as an alternative to wood in a number of off-road installations. Being lighter than wood, the steel poles were considerably easier to carry in and install. We were actually able to use a tractor to move the poles in.

“In 1996, we switched to steel for all new construction,” he said.

Stories like George Manning’s have the potential to strike fear in the hearts of wood pole proponents. Steel manufacturers and the American Iron and Steel Institute, which tout steel as better replacement material for utility poles, are using similar case studies to get across what they see as the obvious advantages of steel: durability and environmental factors. (Depending on the layout of numerous peripheral contingencies like labor and span lengths, both sides claim a real grasp on economics and bottom line.)


Steel manufacturers claim a victory of 30 or more years in this arena. Citing wood’s natural tendency to deteriorate with age, the American Iron and Steel Institute gives a round number of approximately 30 years for a traditional wood pole. Doubling that yearly estimate, the Institute claims that steel can last 60 to 80 years.

However, like wood, steel poles are at the mercy of the environment with one critical factor: corrosion. Without the proper galvanization as a deterrent, it’s quite possible that raw steel is as vulnerable as wood itself.

The North American Wood Pole Coalition, which (like the American Iron and Steel Institute) is in place to inform about their industry, stated that deterioration of wood poles cannot be so easily generalized, as a number of ingredients would have to be perfectly mixed to create that 30-year template, basic mineral components in the soil or average humidity and acidity factors in the air for example. (They cite wood poles that have been unearthed at 60 years or more and are still viable.)

And while the steel camp has pockets full of case studies like Manning’s where durability is a factor, the wood team is not without a comeback. The North American Wood Pole Coalition pointed to examples like Columbia Power’s 30-mile-long Canadian project originally designed by BC Hydro for steel poles. Once factors like durability and budget were examined, however, Columbia opted for wood replacements for the first section (7.5 miles). The Coalition claimed that the section’s success led Columbia to redesign the remaining project with wood in mind.

The American Iron and Steel Institute countered with Arizona Public Service (APS), which has a pilot plan focusing on steel replacements.

“Some people say that wood poles last as long [as steel], but typically they don’t,” stated Duane Oliver, APS construction supervisor. “If you evaluate the life-cycle costs of both wood and steel, APS believes steel is the best choice.”


Steel also claims to be more environmentally friendly, pointing to two basic reasons: Steel is recyclable, and pressure-treated wood is being called to the carpet by the EPA and environmental groups.

In response to claims about wood preservative treatments, the North American Wood Pole Coalition released a report authored by Dr. Kenneth Brooks of Aquatic Environmental Sciences. In it he points out that, while wood poles are often pointed at as the offending party, even steel poles can create environmental problems with the leaching of zinc.

“It is a basic truth that essentially every human activity-from the soil erosion associated with growing the wheat for a loaf of bread to producing the power that runs our appliances-has an associated environmental cost,” stated Brooks.

“Properly produced and used, pressure-treated wood utility poles pose no greater risk to the environment than growing the wheat used to bake your next loaf of bread, and present far less personal risk than driving to your local grocery store to purchase that bread,” he concluded.

It seems that most utilities would agree with him. While a new alliance labeled the Steel Utility Pole Task Group has made it their goal to obtain at least 10 percent of the four million replacement pole market by 2004, even they admit that steel distribution poles only make up approximately two percent of the current replacement market.

And wood remains on top, with a comfortable lead-for now.

For more information on the North American Wood Pole Coalition contact Jerry Parks (360-693-9958). The American Iron and Steel Institute can be found online at

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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