From Linemen to Mountain Climbers

Dec. 1, 2008
Veteran Virginian linemen never thought they would live to see the day when an old line would be reconductored in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia.

Veteran Virginian linemen never thought they would live to see the day when an old line would be reconductored in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia. Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC; Lovingston, Virginia) crews spent 134 working days scaling the rocky and steep terrain of the Blue Ridge Mountains to convert 8 miles of line from single-phase, 8A copper-weld wire to three-phase, 1/0 aluminum conductor steel-reinforced wire.

Linemen originally constructed the line in the 1950s, and over time, the system became overloaded. As more people built getaway cabins and vacation homes up in the mountains, they increasingly demanded more power. By upgrading the system, CVEC not only helped to deal with the growth in the area, but also to improve reliability.

In September 2007, CVEC linemen began the yearlong process of changing out all 134 poles on the line. CVEC replaced the accessible poles with wood poles and the poles in remote areas with steel poles. The utility opted for steel poles in remote areas because of their strength, and because they are lightweight, they could easily be transported up the mountain and through the forest.

Steep Terrain

The CVEC linemen had to scale slippery hills, navigate through the woods, cross streams and avoid loose rocks on the side of the mountain. When blasting through rock to make way for the new poles, the linemen faced the danger of rock slides. “We had to be careful up there digging the holes and even walking around, so that some of the rocks would not roll down to the road into traffic or hit other crew members,” said Caleb Johnson, a line technician for CVEC.

The linemen used dynamite to blast holes into the gray granite rock where the new poles would go. Many times, the crews had to drag 300 ft of air-compressor hoses and tote jackhammers up the side of the mountains. Ropes and capstan winches were used to set most of the difficult poles.

The crews outrigged the wire on the new poles in order to pull the new wire in. All of this work was done on an insulated platform called a hotboard. This device came in handy, particularly when working on the steel poles. When working on the wood poles, the linemen were able to move around with their hooks to get a better position in which to work. However, with the steel poles, this was not an option. The linemen attached the 3-ft or 6-ft hotboards to the steel poles where they were working.

Along with relying on hotboards, the crews also built platforms on some of the uneven terrain to level the ground around the poles. To devise the platforms, linemen cut logs or old poles, laid them crossways and bolted them together.

“We built these to the locations where we needed them, and the terrain was very steep,” recalled Jacob Floyd, CVEC line technician 2. “It may have been 6 ft on the low side and 10 ft on the other side. We needed a flat, level spot to stand on to dig those holes.”

Just getting to the location also was an issue. They often had to park the truck, drop the line crews off at a location and then walk on foot to work on the line. In some areas, the linemen even had to tie ropes up in the tree and then pull themselves up to the right-of-way.

Rattlesnake Country

The CVEC linemen not only had to contend with rock slides and aerial platforms, but also with rattlesnakes and copperheads. During the course of the project, the linemen saw several of the deadly snakes slithering up the mountain.

To protect themselves from snake bites, the crews wore snake chaps. Because they had to crawl and use their hands to get up the mountain, the linemen had to keep their eyes open and watch out for the deadly creatures.

Because the radio communications and cell phones did not work in the remote location, the crews garnered local community support. Crew leaders met some of the local residents who were willing to offer their assistance in the event of an emergency. Fortunately, no one was bitten by a snake and no local homeowners had to be notified.

Old-School Line Work

Rattlesnakes were only half the battle. Rather than using modern equipment to improve productivity on the job site, the linemen had to revert to the old-school way of performing line work. They often had to dig holes by hand. In many cases, they also used such tools as post-hole diggers, rock bars, sharp shooters and jackhammers.

To help the linemen complete the job on time, CVEC invested in a track digger with a boom and tracks instead of rubber tires. By using this machine rather than setting the poles by hand, linemen were able to cut their time in half.

The terrain was rocky from the bottom to the top, and two-thirds of the poles were virtually inaccessible with any kind of major machines or equipment. In the areas the crews could get to, they would try to use their trucks, but they ran into rock on almost every hole. At times, they would be digging on a single pole hole for two days until they could get ready to set the poles.

Every day was a surprise, and every pole was a different situation. Sometimes the linemen had to pull five to six spans of wire by hand, because they could not set their wire machines up due to the steep elevation.

Jason Purvis, a line technician 2 with CVEC, said the poles were often situated on a rock cliff. The linemen would need to approach the existing pole, decide where the new pole was going to be set, dig out the new pole hole and lay out the old wire on the old pole to get it out of the way to make room for the new pole.

“Everything was 10 times harder because of where it was,” Purvis explained. “Every move made had to be right or you could slip and fall. Everything was uncertain.”

Keeping Workers Safe

Because the crews were working with live lines throughout the entire project, they stayed safe with personal protective equipment.

Although the line crews got anxious and discouraged at times, they were encouraged to take one pole at a time and one day at a time. Sometimes they were on the same pole for a few days.

Rather than being pressured to complete the job on a fast-track schedule, the crews focused on safety and tried to make every move count. As a result, there were no injuries on the project.

While the CVEC crews faced seemingly insurmountable challenges during the project, their work will pay off for future generations of linemen. The line was overloaded before, and anytime there was a problem, linemen would have to sectionalize the line and put it back on little by little to the top of the mountain. Now that the line is three-phase aluminum rather than single-phase copper, CVEC has noticed a significant improvement in reliability.


The authors woudl like to thank CVEC line technicians Joedy Ross, Caleb Johnson, Jason Purvis and Jacob Floyd for their contributions to this article.

Alan Scruggs is a division superintendent for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. [email protected]

Talmage Eubank served as the foreman on the job. [email protected]

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