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Rough Conditions Require Off-Road Equipment

Published in: Transmission & Distribution World
Date: 1/1/2006
By: Bruce Livingood, Poleset Inc

West Virginia has some of the roughest terrain in the United States. This has not stopped people from building homes and businesses in rocky, wilderness and mountainous locations. Allegheny Power and other utilities that provide services to these customers are often challenged by the extreme elements in delivering timely maintenance to their systems. Getting around, even on a good day, often takes a lot of time and the right equipment. To meet these operation challenges, Allegheny Power has relied on off-road vehicles and equipment, and contractors who specialize in off-road utility work.

Poleset Inc. (Prosperity, Pennsylvania) began performing off-road services for utilities in the Northeast seven years ago, under a contract with Allegheny Power. Our specialized pole and line services apply to both normal maintenance and installations as well as emergencywork in hard-to-get-to areas on the system. We also rent specialized off-road equipment. Equipment is a key part of our service, so for several years now, we have been perfecting our own unmanned digger derrick machine, which is mounted on steel tracks.

Storms Keep Crews Busy

In October 2005, Poleset crews and equipment were put to the test after a heavy, wet snow hit the Northeast, the West Virginia mountains and along the ridge into Pennsylvania. The trees still had most of their leaves, so they snapped under the weight of 10 inches of snow, taking out power to about 190,000 homes and businesses in West Virginia alone.

We began getting calls from utilities on Oct. 23, the day after the storm. This is to be expected when storms hit our utilities' service areas. Some of our crews had been using our custom-built digger derrick equipment on Allegheny Power's jobs for almost two years, but for other employees working the storm, it was the first time they had seen the uniquely designed equipment in action.

We sent three of our track machines to work with six or seven service centers scattered between Weston, West Virginia, and Oakland, Maryland. Many of the roads had to be cleared before crews could actually reach the line trouble.

Our crews kept busy working 16-hour days alongside utility and contract crews. On the Saturday after the storm hit, two machines and crews working near each other were able to set three poles each. The remote control feature on our custom-built digger derrick equipment allows the operator to stand safely away from the equipment during transport and during digging and handling operations. It also gives the operator a cleaner view when driving the machine and setting the poles. Allegheny Power crews were impressed with what the machine could do under the extreme circumstances.

Saving Time

Time is always a factor when you are on the clock. For this reason, we designed multiple functions into the equipment. Traditionally, pole placement is done with the help of a large truck with a boom and winch. A hydraulic auger, attached to the boom, is used to dig the holes for the poles and screw in the anchors. These functions - excavate the hole, setting the pole and attach the wires - have all been built into the custom-made equipment and are operated by remote controls. Once the outriggers are hydraulically set in place, work can be completed from one position with one machine setup. This keeps our crew sizes small while increasing productivity. The attached outriggers ensure stability, whether in a confined area, steep slope or wet location.

Loading and unloading were also time issues during the storm-restoration operation. We mounted a shuttle-lift device on the track unit's transport vehicles, enabling crews to quickly load and unload the unit. The unit is intentionally designed to be as compact as possible yet robust enough to do the job. With a footprint of only 21 ft long by 8.5 ft wide and 7 ft high, the unit weighs approximately 28,500 pounds, so it can be hauled on a tandem-axle truck. Because of its size, our crews were also able to deliver the machine closer to the work site.

As the restoration work progressed, several other service centers dispatched our crews to work with various power line contractors. To expedite getting the job done, crews would sometimes meet us and leave from the service centers with their crews. Other times restoration teams would meet us along the interstate or at landmarks and direct us to the pole restoration area. Luckily the weather following the snowstorm was mild for several days. We finished setting poles and returned to the shop on Wednesday, Nov. 2, just 12 days after the storm hit. Customers' power had been restored, and the majority of the downed poles and lines were replaced or refurbished.

Mitigating Risk of Rollover

Utilities' pole crews sometimes need to travel and work in steep and difficult terrain. The feature that Al Rogers, a retired lines coordinator for Allegheny Power, liked about our track-mounted pole-setting machine was the low center of gravity. The power unit and pole-setting equipment are mounted low on the frame, making it possible to go safely where other vehicles are not able to go. The steel tracks provide sure footing and the machine can take sideling grades to near 45 degrees. Because the operator walks behind the machine, he is able to anticipate any obstacle or unsafe condition before it occurs.

The pole-setting equipment is operated by remote control. This allows the operator to stand safely away from the equipment while transporting and during digging and handling operations.

Normally, when work areas are inaccessible with a traditional boom truck and digger derrick, poles and anchors must be set by hand. Most pole holes are at least 5 ft deep and can be as deep as 10 ft, depending on the size of the structure required. In inaccessible areas, the only way to dig them is by hand using a commercial-grade post-hole digger. Hand-digging can take anywhere from a few hours to more than a day. And in West Virginia, you have to factor in rock, which will require a jackhammer and sometimes dynamite. We have found that our self-contained unit can handle most of these adverse conditions in one operation, resulting in less manpower requirements.

Rock has little effect on the tracks, but in some cases where we encounter severe rock and icy conditions, we outfit the unit with spiked track shoes. The machine is also equipped with a 30,000-pound front winch, which helps get us over the tight spots. Like all equipment, we still have some limitations. Snowy and marshy areas limit the equipment's operation, but the ability to drive the unit around these areas usually takes care of the problem.

Spreading the Word

Allegheny Power has been renting one of the custom-built units, which we named the Polesetter II, for the past year. The company encouraged us to make it available on a larger scale to other utilities faced with rough, off-road service areas. Traditional equipment tends to be heavier and requires additional equipment, such as a boom truck, to perform all of the tasks associated with a pole crew. There are some places where Allegheny Power's workers could not reach by driving.

In September 2005, a production model of the Polesetter II was introduced to the industry at the ICUEE show. The unique design has been well received. It is designed to maneuver in rough terrain safely, for quick setup and includes everything we need on board to complete the pole setting and wiring tasks at hand. While working for Allegheny Power last year, Al Rogers worked closely with the Poleset contract crews and their equipment. He said that during his 34 years of service, as a line worker and in management, the "track digger," as he calls it, is one of the finest and safest tools he has seen in the industry.

Bruce Livingood, president of Poleset Inc. (, has worked in the electric utility industry for 20 years. He began his career as an engineering technician at Allegheny Power in 1986. In 1991, he founded Poleset Inc., which specializes in providing off-road utility construction and maintenance for utilities in the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

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