Utility line poles seem ubiquitously labeled by various systems, raising questions about municipal standards. One would think that some tried-and-true alphanumeric protocol would universally exist by now, there being over a century of history and global experience with the phenomenon. It appears, though, that the wheel is constantly reinvented, and not very effectively (or efficiently) at that. Why hasn’t urban humanity yet figured out the problem for cataloguing and inventorying the line pole?

Rocky Semmes, Alexandria

There are approximately 150 million utility poles in service in North America. One way to number them would be to start at 1 in, say, the easternmost city in the United States (West Quoddy Head, Maine) and then head west, counting and numbering all the way, until arriving in the westernmost city (Cape Wrangell, Alaska) and marking the last pole with 150,000,000.

But that journey would take you through the territories of more than 3,400 different utility companies, each likely to employ its own notation system for its own utility poles. And even within a utility, obsolete numbering systems may be displayed next to their more modern replacements. A utility pole can last for decades.

And, as we’ll see, it is more than just the electric companies that need to keep track of the poles.

Let’s start with the pole itself, which bears a “birthmark” that is burned into the surface of the wood or embossed on a metal tag. Butch Bernhardt of the Western Wood Preservers Institute in Vancouver, Wash., said the birthmark information includes the pole’s manufacturer and the plant where it was produced, the species of tree (typically Douglas fir, southern pine or western red cedar), the preservative used on the wood, the year of its treatment and the class of pole. (Poles come in different sizes and shapes.)

Once the pole is in place, its owner will then label it using the utility’s own system. Poles are part of a utility’s assets and so are inventoried using asset management software. Most of these database programs incorporate GIS: geographic information system mapping.

Poles owned by Dominion Energy in Northern Virginia bear a string of stenciled letters and numbers that locate each pole in grids of increasing detail, said the utility’s spokesman, Rayhan Daudani.

The complication is that what you may call a “telephone” pole is actually a device that can be strung with multiple types of line: electrical wires, television cables, fiber optic wires, maybe even an antenna or two.

One utility owns the pole, but multiple utilities use it — and each has its own way of numbering it.

“For example, if Pepco attaches a power line to an existing Verizon pole, Pepco will add Pepco’s unique number to the Verizon-owned pole,” said Pepco’s Christina Harper. “The pole will have both Pepco and Verizon identification numbers on the pole and Pepco’s pole database will identify it as a non-Pepco pole.”

A nonprofit entity called the National Joint Utilities Notification System — NJUNS — helps inform utilities of work done on poles, so, for example, the power company knows that the telephone company was out there. It’s similar to Miss Utility and other one-call systems contractors use before digging.

NJUNS doesn’t keep track of the number a pole’s owner uses, said Tim Webers, the group’s executive director. Rather, it notes the physical address of a pole.

Webers began his career in the 1980s at a power company that served the Midwest. He has seen many changes over the years.

“We used to have paper cards in an index file,” he told Answer Man.

That system was far from perfect. A card might indicate that the pole Webers’s crew was sent to work on was a Class 3 pole, set in place in 1958.

“We’d get out there and it’d be stamped with ‘1982,’ ” Webers said. “It got replaced, but that index card never got updated.”

Computers make updating details easier, but they still depend on humans to do the work. When the focus is on restoring power quickly, filling in the boxes on a spreadsheet might fall by the wayside. Webers said when out-of-state crews descend on a storm-ravaged area to help restore electricity, they may not know how to use that utility’s pole-numbering method.

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission proposed establishing a national utility pole database. Webers remembers sitting in a room listening to the announcement with a bunch of other utility veterans.

“Everybody just rolled their eyes,” he said. “That information gets old so quick. It would cost millions to maintain that database and keep it up to date.”

There’s another problem that sometimes crops up.

“The [identification] tags in my utility were little round numbers nailed into the pole,” Webers said. “Those make a nice target for people walking in the woods. They’d be all shot up.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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