Composite Poles Offer Customized Solutions for Midwest Utility

By Matte Elkins, Duratel

By some estimates there are more than 150 million U.S. utility poles carrying hundreds of millions of miles of electrified lines. For utilities, maintenance, replacement and installations of new lines and poles offer many challenges that cannot always be solved using existing methods, architecture or equipment.

Often, successfully overcoming these obstacles requires new thinking and a willingness to consider nontraditional options. An example is utilities’ desire for a simple, effective system to install utility poles in remote, wilderness, back-lot and hard-to-reach areas where access to resources can be difficult.

From Traditional to Composite

Ameren is known as an early adopter of many utility engineering techniques and practices. It was one of the first major investor-owned utilities to use Duratel composites for solutions including guyless installations, replacing woodpecker-damaged poles, remote locations and many others. While composite poles have a higher upfront cost, the longer lifespan, decreased freight and quicker installation contribute to an overall, total lower pole ownership cost for the lifespan.

Composite poles work well in remote, rocky enviroments.

“From a design perspective, you see this all the time,” said Matt Jolani, standards distribution engineer for Ameren Services in St. Louis. “We need to run power through a forest or next to a river, and the process of getting equipment to these areas is both costly and time consuming. We also face issues with easements or right-of-way where traditional wood poles will simply not fit.”

One-piece composite utility poles offer strength and durability in a lightweight, low- or no-maintenance package that offered a solution to Jolani’s dilemma.

This composite pole shows multiple attachments and high degree turn angles.

In doing business and providing composite pole solutions with Ameren Missouri, Duratel was approached about another issue, a project in the Pilot Knob region of Ameren Missouri’s service territory that required innovation and offered the company a chance to work more in-depth with a utility customer to find and engineer a solution to a set of problems.

The problems at Pilot Knob centered around location. Ameren Missouri faced a remote stretch of distribution line near the town that needed to be replaced. Specifically, existing poles were in a hard-to-reach area on an extreme rocky slope that made conventional installation, replacement and maintenance difficult. This type of situation is not common for utilities. In many cases, linemen are required to make on-the-spot field modifications to poles, work around existing barriers and obstacles, or place poles along restricted easements, difficult terrain or marshy areas where typical heavy equipment cannot gain easy access.

“We considered many possibilities for this project,” Jolani said. “The environment made it difficult to locate the new poles. The slope and rocks made it impossible to drill using our existing equipment, and blasting was out of the question.”

Ameren Missouri faced with a dilemma. Installing standard wood poles in the existing location would have been expensive and time-consuming, and terrain made any resulting maintenance prohibitive. When Jolani contacted Duratel, the company began designing a solution. The result was a secure, safe, customized steel-base plate with a reinforced core that fit inside Duratel’s hollow pole design and attached to the rock face using standard anchor bolts (see photo). Once the solution was found and manufactured, the poles were transported to the site and installed without heavy machinery.

Ameren’s Pilot Knob solution is shown in this photo: a steel base plate and reinforced core.

“We were very pleased with the results,” Jolani said. “From the initial request, the design phase, delivery and installation, Duratel exceeded our expectations with this project. It’s nice to have a relationship with a company willing to work with our people toward a common goal.”

An Ameren Expansion: Woodpeckers

After the success of the Pilot Knob installation, Ameren Missouri examined its need for other specialty applications for composite poles and found a hole in one area of its transmission and distribution plan: woodpeckers.

Woodpeckers are a persistent problem for traditional wood utility poles. Whether they are looking for bugs, building nests or storing acorns, the birds’ can critically damage poles with their pecking, requiring costly and time-consuming repairs or replacement. Unlike traditional wood poles, composite poles resist woodpecker damage, making the poles a weapon in the war against the pesky woodpecker, said Kevin Kuper, Ameren Missouri construction supervisor.

Composite poles can safely increase span length.

“Knowing that we won’t be back in five years with the same type of woodpecker damage is a great long-range cost savings,” Kuper said. “My crews have installed poles in areas prone to this type of damage and are encouraged to have a product that can survive in these environments.”

As utility pole needs change and engineering or environmental challenges arise—whether those challenges are terrain or pests—composite poles offer an attractive option for many traditional and specialty applications. Composite poles may be an expensive upfront choice, but Ameren’s use of this product in unusual and specialty circumstances shows room exists in the distribution grid for more than the traditional, staid wooden pole.

Woodpecker damage in a traditional wood pole.

Matte Elkins is vice president of communications at Duratel, a Chicago-based manufacturer of reinforced, composite utility distribution, transmission and lighting pole products.

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