The Southwestern Power Administration maintains 1,400 miles of high voltage power lines that connect hydroelectric power plants to the customers they serve. An important part of their maintenance program is regular vegetation management for the right of way for those power lines. Some ROWs are on private lands, some are on government owned land and many are on sloped terrain, making consistent vegetation management a consistent challenge.
The facilities operate a variety of equipment for vegetation management – including rotary mulchers, telescoping tree saws, mulching tractors, and, of course, chain saws. The steeper slopes, which were problematic for wheeled carriers, or even rubber tracked vehicles, used to be cleared manually with chain saws and elbow grease.
Having workers clear brush by hand on slopes with chainsaws was a slow, inherently dangerous process. But a trio of purpose-built steel tracked mulching tractors has taken over the vegetation control on slopes. Fecon FTX128 mulching tractors have eliminated much of the hand labor.
A Four-Year Chore
The SWPA operates on a four-year rotation for vegetation management: once every four years a team will either apply herbicide or mechanically clear the ROW. Landowner preference is a contributing factor regarding what gets the job done, as is proximity to water sources or crop land.
Either cropland or not, the type of vegetation growing on the 1,400 miles of SPA right of ways runs the gauntlet, including pines and cedars but mostly hardwoods like hickory and oak. The four-year rotation keeps the sizes from getting out of hand—most of the brush that operators are up against ranges from six to eight inches in diameter.
In addition to the brush, SWPA faced an uphill challenge: some of the slopes that required clearing were rather steep. Having hand operators clearing brush on a steep slope posed a risk in and of itself, but when combined with soft or wet earth, it was downright treacherous.
The FTX-128s mulchers are well suited for soft earth, even on sloped terrain. The steel tracks offer strong traction with a light footprint, allowing SWPA operators to conquer the terrain without tearing up the ground. Fecon notes that the FTX128 has a 45º gradeability with power to cut and climb.
“As long as there’s dirt for those steel tracks to grip, we can get up the slopes,” said Kevin Overholt, an equipment operator with SWPA.
Overholt noted that the FTX128s have drastically reduced the need for hand clearing, which came with a surprising result. After operators hand cleared a stretch, they left behind logs and stumps. The tracked mulchers not only mulch fresh material straight to the ground, they also mulch all the old stumps leftover from the hand clearing days. The FTX128s effectively cleaned up after previous rotations, and left behind a clear swatch of freshly mulched right of way. The operators are grateful to keep the chain saws in the truck, and the landowners are grateful for SWPA leaving their property looking nice.
“Some landowners want it to look nice when we’re done, and it’s nice to be able to give that better finished product.” Overholt said.
The FTX128 mulchers haven’t necessarily allowed SWPA to get into new terrain— they have to go mulch the right of ways they have. But the FTX128s have allowed them to do it faster. Overholt estimates the switch to the tracked mulchers is four to five times faster than hand clearing.
Despite being outnumbered, it wasn’t much of a contest: the one Fecon operator did the work of four chainsaw operators. Mulching steel slopes is still a slow process, and Overholt’s operators have to work vertically back up and down one swatch at a time. Still, one operator on the Fecon can work for up to ten hours, while it can be a challenge to hand cut on a serious slope at that pace. Overholt noted that the rotary cutters can go even faster, but the Fecon allows for operation on the steeper terrain and delivers a better product.
Of course, it wasn’t all done by hand. SPA previously used rotary mulchers but made the switch to tracked mulchers four years ago. The rotary mulchers left ruts in soft dirt and tore up landowners property. The FTX128’s steel tracks dig into soft, wet dirt without tearing it up, allowing for superior maneuverability with minimal footprint.
Another reason SWPA made the switch was the safety risk that rotary cutters posed. Some of SWPA’s 1,400 ROW cuts across rock. If a rotary blade hits a rock, it will either break the blade or throw the rock, creating a safety hazard to nearby operators either way.
Even if everyone makes if out unscathed, hitting rock is hard on the machine. Breaking or throwing a blade puts the rest of the cutter out of balance, requiring the operator to shut it down for maintenance in the field. The tracked mulchers throw everything straight down, not out. Plus, the operator is in an enclosed cab, offering shelter from thrown rocks and debris. And with separate carbide teeth, operators that strike rock may only have to adjust the broken tooth, rather than the whole machine.
Thanks to the likelihood of running into rock on any given day, Overholt and his team use carbide tips on their FTX128 mulchers. Changing all 38 teeth is a chore, to be sure, and an expensive one, but Overholt notes that he doesn’t have to change all of them frequently. More often than not, it’s only the occasional tooth that chips or wears down faster than its neighbors that needs replacing.
In addition to clearing faster, safer, and leaving it looking nicer, Overholt notes that in his experience, the tracked mulchers keep brush from growing back better. Mulching the greenery to the ground seems to kill the brush off, versus cutting it off and allowing it to grow back.
“Looking back at all the places we have cut, the brush is slower to come back,” he said.
Of course, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Overholt noted the FTX128 had issues with the HVAC system as well as the rock guards. Fecon stood behind their machine, and worked with Overholt to address the issues. Combined with support at the local level in the form of his local dealer, the machine was up and running in no time.
With a clearly cut, nicely mulched path behind them, and 1,400 miles of ROW to clear again in four years, Overholt and the team at Southwestern Power Administration are grateful to have the Fecon FTX128s in their arsenal when it’s clearing season again.