BY KEVIN JONES, ACRT INC.
The measure of a utility’s success is based on reliability. When the power goes out, the failure can be measured by the number of customers affected by the interruption of service and associated emergency line clearance and restoration expenses.
Having a strategic, comprehensive vegetation management plan can help utilities lessen the likelihood that trees will cause an outage.
“The issue with managing the vegetation is one of mitigation of cost and risk,” said Richard Jackson of Arbor Intelligence. “It obviously is not possible to maintain a distribution system that eliminates all tree-related outages. In terms of vegetation management, we think it is best to express success in terms of balance. A system that is constantly being managed, or constantly striving to not be managed as complex adaptive systems tend to do, will display greater volatility as the system is pushed further from its equilibrium.”
In addition, balanced utility vegetation management (UVM) programs are vital to reducing a utility’s overall operating costs and preventing unforeseen ones. Considerable overtime charges generated by tree and wire issues can be prevented with UVM programs.
Having a sound vegetation management plan can be achieved by following these steps:
- Step 1: Assess the system. By combining the expertise of trained arborists with statistical sampling and modeling techniques, a utility can determine the impact vegetation could have on a utility’s circuits. With this knowledge, the most effective action can be determined for ongoing vegetation management. Without it, planning becomes difficult.
- Step 2: Perform a pre-inspection. Skilled arborists who walk a utility’s system note the location, condition and growth rate of vegetation and line clearance requirements. They tag trees and shrubs for removal or trimming and enter all the information into a database for tracking. This data is used to create detailed work plans, which detail steps for tree-trimming crews to ensure vegetation regrowth won’t create issues before the next trimming cycle. It also determines the order of work, which is crucial when considering cost.
- Step 3: Complete a post-audit. Establishing accountability increases the efficiency of a UVM program. It might be naive to expect a contractor to do anything but make a profit, but with post-audit, the work of tree-trimming crews is inspected to determine whether they followed the work plan and specifications. Work is checked for proper pruning (amount and techniques), as well as scheduled tree removals and herbicide applications. This ensures premature regrowth does not pose an issue. If a problem is found, it is submitted back to the contract tree crews for correction.
Vegetation management is key to preventing outages, but some might be reluctant to get started by investing in a system assessment because they think the money could be used to get more tree work done.
Lake Region Electric Cooperative Operations Manager Joe Belz understands that reservation. He said that without a comprehensive plan, however, utilities have no way of knowing how to wisely and effectively spend their maintenance dollars. The common saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” aptly applies to vegetation management, he said.
The cooperative’s CEO, Tim Thompson, said waiting adds to costs.
“The studies showed that if we didn’t jump on these issues quickly, more and more trees were going to become a problem and increase costs down the road,” Thompson said. “It was a front-loaded option but gave the best solutions for the long run.”
Although a UVM composes a large portion of costs for a utility, it’s important to realize the connection between increased overtime and reduced vegetation management. When utilities defer maintenance, they push back trim cycles. But the vegetation doesn’t stop growing. The larger trees and brush become, the more expensive vegetation management becomes, especially when it entails extra overtime for linemen who are completing restoration work.
Achieving the best vegetation management program requires a firm commitment and resources. Following these steps will help ensure the system is properly maintained and eliminate unnecessary costs for work that wasn’t done or that was done improperly.
Kevin Jones is a business development manager with ACRT Inc. and an ISA Certified Arborist and Utility Specialist. Reach him at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Customer Relations is Cornerstone of Successful UVM
Positive customer relations can contribute to the success of a utility vegetation management program. A utility needs well-versed, courteous representatives to foster positive public relations with customers and notify them of tree-trimming or removal activities that will affect them. When encountering the inevitable issue of a refusal, it is imperative to engage the customer with a utility spokesperson trained in conflict management. By properly communicating with a customer who doesn’t want his tree disturbed despite the risk of interrupted electric service, an experienced utility representative can help resolve the challenge, which leads to a more positive outcome.
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