Dakota Electric crew members navigate the backyard aerial unit into a yard.
Dakota Electric crew members navigate the backyard aerial unit into a yard.
Dakota Electric crew members navigate the backyard aerial unit into a yard.
Dakota Electric crew members navigate the backyard aerial unit into a yard.
Dakota Electric crew members navigate the backyard aerial unit into a yard.

Getting Into a Tight Spot

July 27, 2015
Dakota Electric Association crews rely on small aerial lifts to work in backyards.

When working near an open road, linemen can save time, reduce fatigue and improve productivity with their bucket trucks. Many times, however, they must work in hard-to-access locations, such as a customer’s backyard. In these situations, they often must haul in materials by hand and climb poles, which is both time and labor intensive.

To help field crews access tight spots, manufacturers have invented mini backyard machines. For example, Dakota Electric Association, for example, recently invested in the Terex TL 41, a backyard aerial featuring a 41-ft material lift basket. The unit, which is mounted on a SDP track unit, features tracks instead of wheels and can fit through a 36-inch residential gate.

Expending Energy and Effort

Linemen often access customers’ backyards to perform back-lot tree trimming and restore power following a storm. Up until about a year ago, linemen had to drag their materials back and forth on a dolly. Trying to wheel in a 400-lb transformer on a dolly was both awkward and heavy for the line crews. And if a lineman had to pull and push the dolly over hills and wet grass, there was a potential for injury.

Once they had all of the materials in the backyard, they had to climb the poles rather than working from a bucket. Climbing was often time-consuming and challenging because the linemen had to circumvent cable TV equipment and other devices on the poles. If they had to drive their bucket trucks into the backyards, they sometimes had to open panels in the fence. Then after they finished working in the backyard, they had to go back and perform restoration. The heavy weight of the bucket trucks often made an imprint in the customers’ lawns, which had to be remediated.

The lawn restoration had both time and cost associated with it. For example, if the linemen fixed an outage at night, then they would have to go back the next day to do the remediation. If a storm came through that day, however, and they were swamped with work, the linemen would return to these same locations several days after the initial storm restoration was complete.

Dakota Electric apprentice Joe Lodermeier installs a cutout on a backyard pole. The size and versatility of the backyard machine allows it to get where bucket trucks can’t go.

Saving Time and Labor

Now that the linemen have access to a mini backyard machine, they no longer run the risk of tearing up the lawn, and the entire process is much safer, easier and more efficient for the linemen. Because they can load their materials directly on the machine, they can defer the heavy lifting and hauling work to the backyard aerial.

To use the machine, the linemen load it onto a trailer and drive it to the job site. Next, they unload the backyard aerial and load the transformer, overhead equipment and anything else they need and prepare to enter the customer’s gate to access the backyard.

Using a remote-control box, one lineman can operate the machine. Rather than riding in the equipment like a bucket truck, the linemen walk alongside it as it moves slowly. Then when it reaches the desired position, they need to deploy the outriggers and raise the bucket like a normal aerial lift truck.

By extending the bucket up to its highest height of 41 ft, the linemen can easily access the backyard poles, which are typically about 35 to 40 ft tall. When looking for a mini machine, the utility was looking for one equipped with a material handler that can lift a up to 1,000 lb in its best position. For Dakota Electric Association, the machine’s ability to lift such a heavy weight was a big selling point. In addition, the machine features auxiliary hydraulics, which the linemen can use to hook up a hydraulic tamp or drill to help frame and set a pole.

Taking Safety Precautions

The linemen at Dakota Electric Association work with aerial devices every day, so it was natural for them to transition to the smaller lifts. Because the machine does not have the same lifting and handling capacity as traditional bucket trucks, however, the linemen must adhere to certain safety regulations when operating it. For that reason, the workers err on the side of caution when lifting transformers, and they take care when setting up and running the machine.

For example, on the side hills, they must operate the machine perpendicular to the hill. The machine tends to be top-heavy and narrow at the bottom to fit through gates, so it can tip over if not operated properly or overloaded with materials.

To help the linemen safely operate the unit, built-in indicators on the machine show what angle they are going at and safe zones to stay within. In the future, the co-op would like to add a headlight so crews can work safely at night.

Preparing for Future Applications

Dakota Electric stores the mini backyard machine in its garage with all of its other equipment. Because it runs on a small diesel engine, the mechanics can maintain it like the other equipment in the fleet.

If a crew wants to borrow it for the day, a lineman checks it out on the sign-out sheet. On particularly busy work days, one crew uses it in the morning and another crew uses it later on that afternoon.

Like any new piece of equipment, as the crews become more comfortable operating it, they come up with new ideas on how to use it in the field.

So far, both the linemen and Dakota Electric’s customers have been pleased with the new machine. They no longer need to remove fence posts and panels to fit their equipment through the gate, they do not leave ruts in the ground, and the machines are much quieter than the big trucks that used to drive into backyards. As a result, linemen can quickly and quietly enter a customer’s backyard, perform their necessary work and exit without leaving a footprint.  

Bernie Kolnberger ([email protected]) is a utility services manager for Dakota Electric in Farmington, Minnesota. In his current position, he is responsible for line crew, transportation and warehouse operations.

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