Every time a line comes down in someone’s backyard or people in a neighborhood live without power for a few days, people start to question the placement of their electrical wires. Raising questions as to whether lines are in the best place is beneficial. Inquiries from community members start an important conversation with service providers and local government – one that delves into the many issues associated with installing and maintaining power lines.
These discussions bring up many placement factors:
- Installation: Installing underground wires is less routine than putting up overhead lines and is associated with a great deal of inconvenience to residents and businesses, as well as high costs. Underground installation requires excavation, which means if it’s taking place in a previously developed area, there may be traffic obstacles and eyesore construction for a lengthy amount of time. Additionally, this construction requires more workers and equipment, significantly increasing the costs.
- Easements: Where wires can be placed may depend on if easements already exist or whether utilities must compensate landowners to gain utility easements on their property. The requirement to pay owners for their land and for any damage sustained during installation will also dramatically increase the costs associated with underground lines.
- Other service providers: Many consumers around the U.S. would like to see their power lines underground, but feel it should be done at the same time cable and telephone lines are buried. While this seems like a convenient solution – taking care of multiple birds with one stone – it can be difficult for numerous service providers to coordinate on such large projects, not to mention to determine whose workers perform which tasks and who picks up the costs.
- Modification: Once utilities move past the planning and installation stage, they’re now faced with greater difficulty in making changes or expanding their electrical system. Overhead lines can quickly be rerouted, tapped or modified in some other way, but underground lines offer little access. An example of when this issue arises is during construction of a new home or subdivision. Utilities can create new service within a few days with above ground lines, but need up to two weeks to make the same adjustments with underground equipment.
- Maintenance: Underground wires and equipment are less accessible, which means it takes utilities longer to find and get to an issue to fix it. In the mean time, residents and businesses deal with power outages that take longer than if there were overhead lines. Once utilities know where the problem is located, getting to the area could create an additional inconvenience for residents and businesses, as it may require excavation and crews blocking roads.
- The elements: Underground wires are protected from high winds, snow, rain and ice, but they’re also susceptible to flooding and can still be affected by lightning. Residents may believe installing lines below ground will decrease weather-related outages, but in some regions this won’t be the case.
There are numerous components that go into deciding whether a region should have above or underground electrical power lines, but for utilities and local governments, it always comes down to reliability and costs.
Due to the additional factors associated with installing, maintaining and modifying underground lines, using above ground wires can be more efficient for utilities while also providing more consistent service for residents and businesses in the region. Where new lines should be placed and whether old lines should be moved is a regional issue, and each utility must determine which is more beneficial and sustainable for its customers.