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Trees and Power Lines: Plant Smart, Trim Smarter

Planting and trimming trees need to be done safely around electricity to prevent outages, serious injuries and even death.
By Paul Netter

For some people, there’s nothing like the sight of tall palm trees. They create beautiful landscapes and can be attractive additions to yards.

But for Vincent Oatis, Southern California Edison’s manager of Vegetation Management, there is nothing worse when it comes to power lines, outages and safety. Tall trees growing near power lines not only are a leading cause of outages, but also a major safety hazard, leading to fires, serious injuries and even death.

“We do not recommend palm trees, of course, or fast-growing trees like eucalyptus or ash,” said Oatis. “We do not encourage anyone to plant them around utility lines.”

“If you’re not sure you can maintain 10 feet of clearance between power lines, your body and conductive objects like tools and tree branches, don’t take the chance,” said Don Neal, SCE director of Corporate Environmental Health and Safety. “We all want to see you go home safe.”

Being safe around power lines can prevent burns, fractures and spinal injuries suffered by people who come in contact with energized lines while climbing or working in trees. No one should climb a tree within 10 feet of a power line — a limb or branch could touch a line with your extra weight on it — and qualified tree trimmers should never begin work without a pre-job inspection for hazards, especially locating power lines.

To help keep falling trees, toppling branches and limbs from touching energized lines and causing fires,  SCE has a proactive vegetation-management program with nearly 300 two-to-three man crews inspecting at least 1.5 million trees per year in the utility’s service territory. As many as 700,000 to 800,000 of these trees are trimmed and the utility is mandated by theCalifornia Public Utilities Commission to do this work.

Oatis does not recommend people trimming their own trees near power lines and suggests they call SCE at 800-611-1911 FREE to schedule the work. The same applies for when trees or limbs fall into power lines during high winds or rain. People should not touch anything and call SCE at 800-611-1911 FREE immediately.

Safety, however, begins when planting trees. If you see an overhead line, don’t plant underneath it. However, if you must, Oatis says it should only be varieties that grow no more than 25 feet tall, the suggested height for trees within 20 feet of power lines. These trees include the Water Gum, Gold Medallion and Windmill Palm — an exception in the palm tree family. 

Before any digging project, call 811 to avoid underground utilities.

In the end, planting a tree that will mature far away from power lines that doesn’t require utility trimming is not only great for safety, but it’s best for the look of the tree.

“Our trims are not ornamental in nature,” said Oatis. “We’re just clearing for specified defined clearances that are set forth by the state of California.”

“Nine out of 10 times, it’s not aesthetically pleasing to the customer.”

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