What's Up with Those Utility Poles?

The 160 million utility polls in the United States are hot pieces of vertical real estate. All sorts of services want to hitch up their cables. But what do all the gizmos up there do?

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

It's time to take science out of the box.

Today we're going to look at another corner of the industriosphere: the utility pole.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: I'm 40-feet tall, made of Douglas fir and I live in a nice neighborhood.

ELLIOTT: No, utility poles can't talk. That's an ad by Portland General Electric. And not all utility poles are so content. In fact, being a pole is a lot of work.

NPR's Christopher Joyce wanted to find out just how much work, so he visited one utility pole with Brian Hayes, author of the book "Infrastructure."

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: We're standing in a parking lot in Burtonsville in Maryland at a shopping mall with a McDonald's and a Dunkin Donuts and a telephone pole heavily laden with more gizmos that I can point a stick out. So I will ask you, Brian Hayes, to deconstruct this telephone pole for us, please.

Mr. BRIAN HAYES (Author, "Infrastructure"): It's a pretty good specimen with a little bit of everything. If you're going to deconstruct, I think it goes from top to bottom: electric, electric, electric, electric, telephone, telephone, cable TV - we passed over the cable TV - telephone, telephone, telephone and then the fiber optic.

JOYCE: About a dozen lines in all. In fact, your typical utility pole is actually some pretty hot real estate. Power companies put them up to run electric lines but lots of other people, like the telephone companies, pay to hang stuff on them.

So Brian Hayes is going to explain what it all does. Now at the top, you can three big wires, otherwise known as conductors.

Mr. HAYES: They call them primaries. They're the ones that carry the power for a fair distance throughout the area. These are probably a few thousand volts, maybe 4000 volts.

JOYCE: A few thousand volts is about as much as a line worker can safely manage in a rubber suit. More than that and it takes expensive equipment to do repairs.

Now if you look closely, you'll see that the conductors never touch the cross arms at the top of the pole. They're carefully suspended on a what an expert would call…

Mr. HAYES: Ceramic-like dinner plates. Those are the insulators. You definitely don't want the power lines connecting to the poles. Electricity is like water. It leaks if you don't seal it.

And as you come down lower, there are the power lines that carry electricity to the buildings around here at the 120 or 240 volts.

JOYCE: These are the secondary lines. Next to them attached to the pole, you'll probably see something that looks like a big oil can. It is, in fact, full of oil and wires. It's a step-down transformer. It lowers the voltage from the primaries before it goes into the secondaries, otherwise you'd fry your TV or your electric toothbrush.

Below that, you might find a streetlight. And then you're into communication space. You'll see telephone lines, thick heavy cable with perhaps 100 copper wires bundled inside each one. On some of those lines, there's a mysterious plastic lump.

Mr. HAYES: That's where the snake swallowed the pig.

JOYCE: It's something called a junction box.

Mr. HAYES: It's where you make connections. If you have someone who's going to get telephone service, someone has to climb up there and start finding the right individual wires out of those hundred or so copper wires.

JOYCE: Then there are cable TV wires and fiber optic lines. One curious item you might see: something that looks like a hoola-hoop hanging off the fiber optic line. It's extra cable that comes in handy for repairs.

So all this goes on just one pole. Now multiply by 160 million or so…

Mr. JEFF MORRELL(ph) (Oregon State University): It's a tremendous number of poles. One for every other person.

JOYCE: That's Jeff Morrell from Oregon State University. He's a biologist. He started out to be a forester and in a sense he still is. He's an expert on preserving dead trees. More specifically, utility poles.

Morrell lets us in on a secret: a lot of poles are 50 or 60 years old and they're breaking down. People are drilling so many more holes now to attach more stuff. If they don't do it right, there's trouble. Like pole rot.

Mr. MORRELL: If you walk out in the rain, you'd see a lot of water runs down the side of a pole. And when it hits a connector or a bolt or something it will tend to run into the bolt a little bit and that area will get very wet and fungal spores can get in and you'll get decay developing.

JOYCE: Or you'll get termites. Or carpenter ants. It's up to people like Morrell to figure out how to keep poles from falling over. He says it's a preoccupation he sometimes has trouble sharing with others.

Mr. MORRELL: My wife does make fun of me when I drive down the line and I'm looking at poles saying things about them like, Look at that pole. And she shakes her head and just wonders why she married me.

JOYCE: But Morrell stands by his utility poles. And next time you do, you'll know what you're looking at.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: And for those of you who have used your camera to capture the hidden beauty of the utility pole, you can share your photos with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We've set up a Flickr account. Head to npr.org to find out more.

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