American Transmission Co.

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ATC engineering, asset maintenance teams knock down costs with woodpecker damage analyses

A group of American Transmission Co. engineers are driving down costs and improving efficiency by finding a solution to a big problem that starts with a little bird.

While many factors can cause wear and tear on wood electric transmission poles, woodpeckers can often cause some of the most serious damage.

Woodpeckers frequently bore into wood transmission poles to look for insects or make nests. Over time, the holes from the woodpeckers can deepen and multiply, compromising the structural integrity of the poles. That’s why Christopher Facklam, civil design engineer, and Gabriel Nelson, associate civil design engineer, set out to find a more efficient and economical way to analyze woodpecker damage and provide recommendations for handling damaged poles.

“If the damage from the woodpeckers is bad enough, the pole can actually snap in half. What makes woodpecker damage so dangerous is the fact that holes are often near critical points,” said Nelson. “Typically, the birds perch on bolts and peck above them, which is exactly where you do not want holes.”

Woodpecker damage assessments at ATC were previously conducted by a contractor. But now, thanks to the new process Facklam and Nelson developed, those assessments can take place within ATC for a fraction of the cost. The new process is also faster and more accurate.

First, inspectors in ATC’s asset maintenance department inspect poles and record the number, depths and locations of woodpecker holes. Then, ATC’s engineering team analyzes the data to make recommendations. If the structure is acceptable, ATC’s maintenance team takes the lead by filling the holes with a foam epoxy and/or wrapping the structure in wire mesh. If the structure needs to be replaced, an ATC engineering team is assigned to the replacement project. Then, the structure is replaced and wrapped with wire mesh as a preventative measure.

“Being internal employees, we have access to all the necessary records for analysis and we are familiar with gathering these records for use. This saves time for the ATC maintenance personnel who, in the past. would need to gather the initial information and any subsequent requests for the consultant,” said Facklam.

Janssen Baij, senior maintenance engineer with asset maintenance, has worked closely with Facklam and Nelson to streamline the process. He says bringing the analysis in-house has resulted in shorter timelines, more accurate analyses and significant cost savings.

“No longer do we have to gather all of the information for a specific structure. We can now send the woodpecker inspection report to engineering and have them gather all the required information related to the pole. This decreases the turn-around time required in the past. The sooner we know a pole is a reject, the sooner we can react to replacing the pole,” Baij said.

The in-house process is also more accurate. Previously, a lack of data could cause more poles to be replaced than necessary. With more data, the engineering team can confidently conclude that some poles, which may have been marked for replacement under the old analysis method, are in fact safe to stay.

“We are performing a more in-depth analysis that is consistent with the way we design new structures. Our analysis utilizes transmission line design software to create a detailed model of the damaged pole in addition to nearby interacting structures,” said Facklam. “This reduces the number of conservative assumptions that may otherwise have to be applied and gives us the confidence that the results are more accurate when we provide recommendations to maintenance.”

If a pole does need to be replaced, crews in the field look for any birds that may still be nesting in a pole before it is taken down.

“Crews check the pole before taking it down to ensure they’re not interfering with nesting birds,” said Mike Warwick, senior environmental project manager. “It’s rare, but they may find an owl or a kestrel. Those birds can nest in holes created by woodpeckers. In one case, we took the section of a pole that did have nesting birds to a wildlife rehabilitator.”

Warwick says pecking into wood transmission poles does not pose any health risks for woodpeckers. ATC has no recorded incidents of any woodpecker deaths or injuries as a result of interactions with ATC facilities.