Trees and power lines don’t mix so look up before you plant

Trees and power lines don’t mix so look up before you plant

With fall in the air and winter on the way, it’s a prime time to plant trees.

But before heading to the nursery to choose seedlings, look up before you plant. If power lines are directly overhead or even nearby, Alabama Power urges customers to consider another location. Planting the right trees in the right place will help preserve their beauty and health for many years to come.

“We want to provide our customers with safe, reliable electricity,” said John Morris, Alabama Power Corporate Headquarters line clearing specialist. “To make sure that our customers’ power is uninterrupted, it’s important that we have good access to our lines so we can maintain and repair them.”

Trees start out tiny. But they can spread and grow tall, making them the No. 1 cause of outages.

Branches brushing against power lines can cause the lights to blink or knock out electricity altogether. Squirrels, birds and other small animals often gnaw on the lines, which can lead to outages.

Always be aware where you're planting trees.
Always be aware where you’re planting trees.

It’s important to keep distribution and transmission rights-of-way open and free from vegetation to allow easy access to the lines.

“We want our customers to fully enjoy their trees,” Morris said. “If their trees are planted in the right place, we won’t have to prune or top them, which could make them less attractive.”

Trees should never be planted directly under power lines or on distribution and transmission rights-of-way. Shrubs and flowers that grow no taller than 10 feet must be planted a minimum of five feet from the right-of-way in what is known as the small zone.

Small, ornamental trees that do not grow taller than 20 feet when fully mature are planted in the medium zone. These trees are typically planted 5 to 15 feet from the right-of-way. Dogwoods, crape myrtles, boxwoods, pomegranates and dwarf Japanese maples are examples of varieties that can be planted in this zone.

Shade trees, such as hickories, oaks, pines and cypresses, must be placed in the tall-growth zone. Because these trees often spread 20 to 30 feet in all directions at maturity, they need to be situated at least 15 feet from the line.

Trees and other plants should also be placed at least 10 feet from underground lines and aboveground transformer boxes, Morris said. Plants that are too close to transformer boxes can hamper employees’ access to the equipment when work needs to be done.

Before any digging begins, residents and businesses should call 811 to request assistance in locating underground lines and verify that plants are the proper distance from utility equipment. Alabama 811 is a free service that will send a utility representative to people’s homes to locate and color code power, gas, cable and telephone lines.

“We’re constantly evaluating how our lines are performing and how vegetation affects them,” Morris said. “Our foresters survey the lines to see if they need trimming. We also take feedback from company engineers and customers. Once we’ve decided it’s time to trim a line, we notify customers that our contractors will be pruning trees on their property.”

Planting pointers

The best time to plant trees is October-March. That’s because trees lie dormant and can benefit from plentiful winter rainfall, allowing them time to establish their root system.

Bethany O’Rear, regional extension agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said the key is to do your homework before planting a tree. Trees and power lines can co-exist by following a few simple rules.

The variety of the tree can depend on various factors, such as its size at maturity, whether it requires full sun or shade, and tolerance to different types of soils. It’s also important to choose native species.

Selecting the right trees to plant in the right proximity to power lines is important.
Selecting the right trees to plant in the right proximity to power lines is important.

The tree should be planted in a hole twice the size of the root ball. The depth of the hole should be measured to ensure the root ball is slightly aboveground. That way water will run down and away from the tree, preventing diseases caused by excess water accumulating at the base of the tree.

The tree should be planted in native soil that is spread loosely around the root ball, O’Rear said. And contrary to popular belief, the new sapling requires no fertilizer and only a small amount of mulch.

“If you eat chocolate all the time, you wouldn’t want to go back and eat less interesting foods,” O’Rear said. “It’s the same way with trees. If the root ball is surrounded by soil that has been enriched by organic material and fertilizer, the roots will tend to stay in the planting hole.”

Don’t depend on rainfall alone to water a new tree, O’Rear added. Because the roots don’t yet have access to the moisture in the surrounding soil, the tree needs the equivalent of 1 inch of water a week throughout the first year of life.

“The take-away is that you should do some behind-the-scenes research to be sure you are getting the right plant in the right place,” O’Rear said. “It will reduce the cost of care and maintenance. If it’s in the right place, the tree will be happier and less stressed, and the chance that it will be attacked by pests will be reduced.”

For more information about planting or trimming trees and shrubs near power lines, contact Alabama Power Vegetation Management Services at (205) 257-2155 or [email protected].

You can also follow this online guide to ensure safe planting.

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