Barehanding technique allows power-line repair crews to work with live wires

They are called barehanders, specially trained to work on energized, high-voltage transmission power lines while in a bucket 100 feet in the air. Fewer than 20 utilities in the nation have such crews. Dominion Power is one of them.
By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On a recent morning last month, a Dominion Power crew made the bumpy ride to a damaged transmission line in Fauquier County, bouncing in a bucket truck along the makeshift dirt and gravel road. They stopped near a 150-foot tower in a clearing filled with rocks, mud and branches.

The crew is among an exclusive group of linemen who work on energized power lines. Dominion's 40 transmission linemen are all trained in the work, referred to as barehanding because the crews wear special suits and gloves that allow them to touch the powered lines. Fewer than 20 utilities out of about 200 in the nation have barehanding teams.

Dominion's crews repair high-voltage transmission lines that carry electricity into substations and then into smaller distribution lines that power homes, businesses and public buildings. Millions of customers across the country benefit, including high-profile clients such as the Department of Homeland Security and several Northern Virginia data centers responsible for half of the world's Internet traffic.

Barehanding is "a huge part of being able to keep our customers from being exposed to an outage," said Wade Bunn, manager of Dominion's transmission line crews. "That is why we try to work on as many of these energized lines as possible."

The unusual profession has brought this group of six linemen closer together. For one thing, they spend 10 hours a day, four days a week with each other, deepening their bond. But it helps that they have similar backgrounds: All are from small Virginia towns -- Orange, Afton and Culpeper among them -- and many started with Dominion right out of high school. When it comes to experience, though, they are an eclectic group, ranging from two to 32 years as a lineman.

In addition to their skills, Bunn said, an effective crew requires the right mix of personalities. He once fired a transmission lineman in North Carolina because of his attitude.

"It's a huge benefit to have the guys get along," Bunn said. "I've had it the other way, and I tell you, it doesn't work."

At the work site, Cecil Spitler, the team's newly minted supervisor, gathered the rest of the crew together for a pre-job briefing. He explained that they were repairing a 580,000-volt transmission line that had been clipped by a bullet, probably from a hunter's gun. The damage was barely visible -- just two small, dangling pieces of wire. The team discovered it during a routine patrol in the spring, when the line made a loud buzzing noise that sounded "kind of like frying bacon," Spitler said.

Spitler went over their individual tasks, noting that the job to repair the wire would require two linemen, while the rest would monitor and prepare the work on the ground. They had plenty of time but shouldn't be complacent, he told them. Oh, and be sure to stretch.

Spitler also reminded everyone that the day would be Brandon Robertson's first time barehanding. Robertson, 27, is a married father from Louisa. He looked anxious, admitting that although he was excited, he was also "a little nervous." But he came prepared, getting about six hours of sleep the night before and downing a sausage-and-egg sandwich for breakfast.

Robertson was assigned to work with Buster Payne, a 52-year-old part-time pastor from Gordonsville. Payne is the group's veteran, tall and burly with a deep, rich voice and thinning silver hair.

The two chatted quietly in a corner as they slipped into their barehanding suits, Robertson's clean and unmarked, Payne's worn to a dull gray. The lightweight suits are made of fire-retardant material and thinly woven strands of stainless steel. In addition to a hard hat, the $1,300 suit comes with boots with a conductive sole, a jumper, a hooded shirt, gloves and socks.

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