Understanding Utility Issues

Understanding Utility Issues

Trees are stressed by all sorts of influences. Examples include slopes that limit infiltration of water; overzealous homeowners who like to fertilize and water excessively; extreme cold and wind that dries out leaf and flower buds; deep planting by untrained landscaping crews; and radiated heat from parking lots. The last thing trees need is to be hampered with the effects of utilities.

So, how do utilities cause damage? Unlike the previously mentioned influences, most utility problems are either hidden or not continuously impactful, only coming into play when they need to be repaired. At that point, trenches need to be dug through the root system to locate and reconnect or replace cables, or branches need to be removed to allow access for utility crews.

The issue with utilities isn’t all that related to the age or size of the tree, rather, the main issue is the extent of the pruning and cutting in relation to the overall crown and root system condition. Specifically, large and healthy tree specimens that are generally free of defects and growing in an adequate volume of soil can sometimes withstand utility damage. Trees that are growing in restricted root zones or are already stressed by cankers, stem girdling roots and waterlogged soils have less capacity.

Above-ground conflicts such as these pose problems for tree care professionals. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Find out

Not all utilities are evident or known to the property owner. In some cases, they’re concealed behind fences, in the soil or by other structures. When considering unknown utilities, it’s wise to play the role of detective, asking the question, “What else is here?” After all, a building or house is present in almost all landscapes, with all sorts of utilities leading in and out of them.

The process of finding out is more difficult on older properties than new installations. If an inspection can be made before the trees are installed, that’s great. But more often than not, it’s likely to be a matter of probing the darkness. There are four main methods of locating them: the aforementioned approach of coaching yourself to be very observant, calling a public service provider (811 on the telephone in most states), contacting a private company that specializes in utility location and simply asking neighboring property owners questions about the history of the site. A healthy combination of these methods is likely to produce the results that will avoid damage to utilities and help diagnose maladies and tree health issues that are related to them.

Allowing access is important for both utility and tree workers alike. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Above ground

Generally, utilities are categorized into two groups: above- and below-ground components and transmission lines. In some cities, certain utilities such as electric power, telephone and cable television are located on poles that are arranged in lines along streets and in alleys.

In other municipalities, all utilities are buried, while still others have a some-above, some-buried setup.

For the most part, property owners consider above-ground lines to be an eyesore, as well as functioning to block desirable views of parks, golf courses, lakes and oceans. From the tree worker’s standpoint, they’re not only ugly, they present a prospective obstacle for the normal expansion and development of the tree crown, trunk and roots. When pruning or other essential tree care functions need to be carried out, they create a potentially hazardous situation, requiring special care to avoid electrocution or loss of service.

Asking the question, “What’s hiding here?” can be helpful. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Below ground

As with above-ground utilities, common below-ground lines include sewers, natural gas, fiber optic and water supply piping (as well as electric and cable in some locations). Of course, in addition to the utility provider itself, many other buried entities exist as well including water supply lines for water features in the landscape and low-voltage lines for landscape lighting.

A below-ground set of pipes that are easily overlooked is a turfgrass irrigation system. Using the investigative look-around technique can be helpful for this one, noticing the backflow preventer and valve boxes in the turf as indicators. Though they pose no risk for electrocution, a slice made through a main line during tree planting will create a geyser that’s damaging and costly to repair. In most cases, coordination with the irrigation installation company will help prevent damage to irrigation supply lines.

Working with the landscape designer and utility workers to protect both trees and valuable utility lines is in everyone’s best interest. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Access

Restrictions on tree growth and possible damage to roots and crown branches are certainly consequential, reducing the capacity of a tree company to deliver a full set of plant health care options to customers.

In the overall scheme of things, it’s helpful to look at conflicts with utilities from another perspective — that of the utility worker. The people that install and repair utilities are focused first and foremost on the actual delivery of the valuable commodity; everything else is secondary, including the value and heath of trees surrounding them.

Whether it’s a valuable oak that provides glorious shade for a patio or just a volunteer Siberian elm, a tree is a tree to the utility worker. For the most part, regardless of the type of plant that may be concerning to the utility worker, it’s essential that adequate access be provided so they can repair or replace broken lines, or upgrade them to provide the best service they can to meet the needs of their customer. After all, in most cases this is the same person who owns the prized tree that’s being compromised by the utility lines.

Contacting a utility locating service is important in avoiding complications. Photo: John C. Fech, UNL

Bottom line

Dealing with utility complications isn’t easy. On one hand, we have the all-important utilities that are the drivers of the modern conveniences that we enjoy. On the other hand, damage to essential tree conductive and meristematic tissues is a common outcome of interfacing with these conduits of energy and technology.

Finding out their exact location, considering alternatives, advising customers regarding proper placement to avoid conflicts and providing sound post-injury care will help to minimize the negative consequences of their damage.

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