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Trimming vegetation away from power lines rarely leaves an attractive result. Unhappy property owners are often left with half-trees, Y-trees and other bizarre shapes. However, even a single tree branch in coming in contact with high voltage lines can scream and explode…

The tree trimming crew from our electric company, CenterPoint Energy, has been in the neighborhood recently. Some people see their activities as an imposition; some see it as a welcome service, but everyone appreciates having uninterrupted electricity. Safety standards being the priority and with limited time and resources, crews often can’t trim your trees with quite the finesse you might prefer. 

Obviously, the best plan is to not plant a tree or large shrub that will outgrow the designated safe space under or near power lines. CenterPoint has detailed brochures available which explain these clearance standards. Click here for CenterPoint tree guides and information. These guides include diagrams about tree placement and some lists of suggested plants and their full-growth sizes.

You can request tree trimming!

Many people are not aware that CenterPoint will come out, inspect, and trim problem trees away from power lines on your property at no cost to you. The numbers to call are 713-207-2222 or 800-332-7143. However, if the CenterPoint representative determines that the plants in question do not pose an immediate hazard, you may have to wait for the regular area-wide trimming schedule to come around to your neighborhood.

Trimming vegetation away from power lines rarely leaves an attractive result. A few somewhat standardized names for the bizarre results are Y- or V-cut, L-cut, and side-cut. Most of them fall into the Please Put It Out of Its Misery cut category.

The used-to-be-a-tree form.
The V-cut.
These two nice trees snuggled under the power lines are heading for...
The Where-is-the-other-half? form.
These are sad pictures, but it’s important to remember the lessened fire risk. According to CenterPoint, distribution lines, which are generally located on wooden poles along roadways or in easements along property lines, carry 12,470 or 34,500 volts of electricity.

Here is a video of what happens when a palm tree tangles with a high voltage line. Note the sparks and debris shooting in every direction and those high tension lines are still live. 

Trimming palm trees away from power lines is problematic, though. Palms have a single growth point so cutting off the top usually is fatal. Simply trimming back the fronds may not be satisfactory either as they can regenerate quickly and become a hazard again before a scheduled trimming cycle. Often the simplest solution is to remove the palm tree. 

CenterPoint tracks whether a service interruption is due to weather, equipment failure, or trees. The company trims 700,000 to one million trees on its distribution system every year and there are 3.5 million trees which periodically require trimming. Eighty-five percent of this vegetation management is planned, circuit-wide to maintain reliability and performance, and the remaining 15% is unplanned, local emergency maintenance. This work is routinely performed by over 100 contractor crews. To put this in perspective, after Hurricane Ike in 2008, there were 4000 tree crews brought in to pair up with an equal number of line repair crews to restore electric service.

How can wood conduct electricity?

Lightening (electricity) strikes trees because they are connected to ground. Under the right conditions, even air can be an electrical conductor. Just because trees are green and leafy, doesn't make them a safe combination with power lines. We are used to thinking of wood as an insulator, but watch and listen to what happens when this one tree branch hits these two lines.
Photo credits: Lauren Millar

Video credits: 
blazing palm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vksMkoKMSHA
screaming branch: http://io9.com/this-tree-branch-hits-a-power-line-screams-and-then-e-1693511312

Sources for this post:
"Power restoration slows as crews go house to house" Houston Chronicle, September 20, 2008.