Recently a crew from PG&E came to our neighborhood to replace a utility pole. (Utility poles are the wooden poles that carry power, phone and cable television lines.) It was an old and weather-beaten pole, its surface burnt by years of being in the sun, riddle with holes from carpenter ants, and huge cracks running down its length. In other words, it was ready to be replaced. It was an odd sight because I had never paid much thought to utility poles. Their rather robust appearance made them look as though they would last forever, or longer than my lifetime for me to worry about. But when I saw a pole being replaced I started paying closer attention to them.
What I noticed was that they were not as robust as they first appeared. Many of them have multiple large cracks through them, others were leaning at precarious angles that made them look like the Tower of Pisa. Many looked like they were abused by Mother Nature, with surfaces that had been worn by rain, sun and insects; while others have been abused by humans who left hundreds of staples on their surface as they used it as a free billboard for posting announcements of yard sales or missing dog posters.
What makes the modern era so much better than previous times is electricity. Without electricity we would not only not be able to enjoy television and the Internet, simple tasks such as doing the laundry, washing the dishes and cleaning the house would be much more difficult. However, despite how incredibly high-tech everything has become, the way we distribute this electricity from power plants remain surprisingly low-tech. In much of the United States, power lines and telephone lines hang from logs that look like they were stolen from Abe Lincoln’s cabin. I checked online to see if there’s a technical rationale for making utility poles from wood instead of a more durable material. (According to my research, utility poles typically last 30-40 years, although in areas with heavy precipitation they can last as little as 10-20 years. With extra maintenance, they can last up to 75 years!) All the websites I checked seemed to indicate that while steel or concrete utility poles are in use, wood is the least expensive material and is therefore most used.
I didn’t immediately accept this explanation, my training as a scientist has taught me to examine all claims with a skeptical eye and seek alternative explanations to every theory presented. I looked around my neighborhood and noticed something peculiar; all the lamp posts were made of steel. Not only are they made of steel, but compared to the utility poles they were works of art. While the utility poles were nothing more than tree trunks with the bark stripped off, the lamp posts were fluted like columns from a Greek temple, with a base inspired by classical architecture. Not only that, there were visible signs that the city had repainted the lamp posts from time to time. Peeling paint from the lamp post reveal a red paint underneath the black paint, and different shades of green on some lamp posts indicated that the top and bottom were painted at different times. All this ornamentation on lamp post must have cost extra money, yet the city didn’t mind. Yet PG&E could not spare extra money making utility poles more durable, or at least aesthetically less of an eyesore.
It also doesn’t make sense from a public safety perspective. Utility poles carry high-voltage power lines that are often uninsulated, so if one falls down it could potentially endanger the lives, not to mention knocking out power to an entire neighborhood. On the other hand, if a lamp post falls down, at worst a section of the street would become unlit. The chance of electrocution would be small because the wires street lights carry are relatively low-voltage and insulated. So it would make sense that street lights would be made from a less durable material than utility poles. In fact, it doesn’t make sense why lamp posts exist at all, because street lights could be easily hung from utility poles. This is done from time to time, but not as often as it could be.
In fact, the lifespan of 30-40 years does not make very much sense, because I know for a fact that wood can last much longer if it is well-maintained. For example, the house I live in was built in 1950 and still functions very well. That suggests utility poles do not perish because of the fragility of the material they are made from, but from the lack of care by the electric company.
I think the real reason why utility poles are made of wood is not economic, but cultural. In our society, things like utility poles are not even considered objects. Like the ground underneath our feet, we treat them as a feature in the world we use everyday but barely notice. The transmission of electricity is not something most people want to think about on a daily basis, not even the electric company. This is probably the reason why utility poles are made of such flimsy material and poorly maintained.
On the other hand, the city pays so much attention to its street lighting, even to make sure the street lamps are pretty. The only reasonably explanation for this is that the city planners think of street lighting the same way they think about lighting in their own home. They want street light to look like the lamps they have in their home, and therefore used much more expensive materials and craftsmanship than necessary. Yet all this ornamentation is lost on most of the public, because we treat street lights the same way we treat utility poles, important pieces of infrastructure we hardly notice.
It’s interesting how tiny details such as utility poles can reveal the biases we have towards the world. But as important as they are, overall it is a small aspect of our lives. Perhaps if we examine many more aspects of our lives the same way I have looked at utility poles, we can uncover even more hidden aspects of our lives and culture that enlightens us to who we are.