Right-of-way clearing might seem less artistic and scientific than other aspects of tree work. After all, the shape, structure and health of the tree aren’t necessarily the primary concerns. The goal is usually to simply clear growth away from power lines, gas pipelines and other utilities, but there’s definitely an art and a science to handling the work safely and efficiently.
Warrensburg Tree Service Company in Warrensburg, Illinois, expanded its traditional residential and municipal tree work to include line clearing several years ago, becoming one of a select number of smaller companies that specialize in both arenas. Owner Brandon Keppler says there was a desire to diversify the company into a new area, and Warrensburg Tree Service was fortunate to land a contract with a utility company.
“We were just a small company and decided we wanted to move in a new direction,” explains Keppler. Getting into the utility line clearing segment was challenging, he adds. “You’ve got to be able to offer the whole ball of wax. When you approach a utility company, you have to have your structure set up to be able to handle all aspects of the job, from cutting to herbicide applications.”
Many right-of-way clearing jobs take place in wooded settings, where crews battle unpredictable terrain and overgrown trees and bushes. Keppler says that the use of mulching mowers represent a relatively new approach to maintenance, and have attracted the interest of utility companies for several reasons.
“We’re using a new Bobcat Forestry Cutter. It’s great for the back-in-the-woods right-of-way clearing, where you’re dealing with all sorts of bushes and small trees,” says Keppler.
Machines like the Bobcat Forestry Cutter leave a fine mulch residue, which makes it easier for line crews to travel the right-of-way in the future. “Skid steer mulching machines are also more compact, which makes it easier to get into tighter areas than using big front-end loaders with mulching heads,” adds Keppler. “If you want to get into new utility line construction, or for maintaining more than single-phase lines out in the middle of the woods, that’s when you want to bring in the real big machines.”
Keppler chose the Bobcat Forestry Cutter in part because it includes a safety device that shuts the cutting head off if the skid steer door opens, preventing debris from being thrown into the cab and striking the operator.
“The one thing to remember with right-of-way clearing: When you use a forestry mower, you have to follow up with herbicide, it’s absolutely essential,” says Keppler. Two years after his crews clear an area, they return to apply an application mix of Garlon 4, Stalker and Impel. “A dye is included, which lasts quite a while, in case the utility company wants to come out to inspect what areas your men have sprayed,” he explains.
For light-volume applications such as this, the company sends out three-man crews equipped with Stihl SG20 backpack sprayers. (The line clearing crews also use Stihl 361 and T200 arborist saws.) The herbicide application eliminates saplings along the sides or remaining in the middle of the right of way before they get big enough to be problematic. “You just spray the ground and 6 inches up the tree, and that should kill it,” says Keppler. “I can’t stress enough the importance of the herbicide. Forestry mowing without herbicide is just pointless. The two really go together.”
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Warrensburg Tree Service also performs utility line clearing in urban and roadside settings. “That’s something we’ve done for about three years,” says Keppler. He sees some correlation between urban utility line clearing and right-of-way clearing in wooded environments. “Any time you do anything involving electricity, from the guys in the bucket trucks to the herbicide applicators, you want to have some idea how it works. No matter what the setting is, electricity is always looking for a way to ground, so safety is always the number one concern. You could be electrocuted whether you’re working up over a line or underneath it,” he says.
That means safety is the top priority in either type of work. “We carry all the ANSI books with us, mandatory safety data sheets with all of our equipment, and we have two safety meetings a month, which are mandatory attendance,” says Keppler. Warrensburg Tree Service crews also receive training through ACRT. “I like to outsource the training rather than having me certify my own men. That way there’s no conflict of interest or risk that an owner might certify someone who really shouldn’t be,” he explains.
Keppler also meets with utility company representatives about once a month to learn about any new hardware that’s been put on utility poles that crews might need to know about from a safety standpoint. “There’s a lot of different minimum approach distances that must be maintained, depending on how many kilovolts are running through the line,” he says. He also holds a morning meeting with crews to discuss the day’s job and any specific safety issues on the line being cleared.
“Efficient production and safety are the two biggest things in right-of-way clearing,” says Keppler. “That’s what utility companies are looking for in a contractor.” And, to be able to compete from a bidding standpoint with large national companies with right-of-way clearing divisions, a smaller contractor must have hard-working crews that know how to get the job done efficiently, he stresses. “Employees are so important in this business, even more so than in residential tree work. Anyone can get a chain saw and a ladder, but to work around electricity and to do the job efficiently takes a special breed of person.”
Keppler has seen three types of bidding in the utility industry: lump sum bidding, an hourly rate and fixed-unit pricing. “A lot of utility companies are getting away from hourly pricing, because of the simple fact of shady contractors,” he explains. That means that bidding accuracy is critical. “You have to look at what the vegetation is so you know what work is involved; that means you need to go drive the line,” says Keppler. The company uses a Kubota RTV 900 and a Polaris 850 sportsmen four-wheeler to access rights of way and move men and equipment in and out of the unpredictable terrain.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2010 and has been updated.
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