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Scrub Hub: Why are utility companies cutting the trees on my street?

Spring has dawned and barren trees will soon start budding, a sure sign of greener views and windows opened to let in a fresh breeze. But as Hoosiers pack away their mittens and pull out gardening tools, they might notice workers in large cherry-picking trucks maneuvering chainsaws into the trees near power lines.

AES Indiana started tree-trimming work in the Meridian Kessler area Monday, after working in the University Heights area last week. The company works on a 36-month cycle to maintain more than 700 miles of electricity-delivering lines in the Indianapolis area.

The power company provides services to nearly 500,000 residents and contracts with companies such as Wright Trimming Services to prune trees and limbs posing a threat to lines throughout its service area.

Employees of Wright Tree Service work on clearing branches and trees near power lines  on Thursday, March. 17, 2022, at the 2100 block of Lawrence Ave., in Indianapolis.
Employees of Wright Tree Service work on clearing branches and trees near power lines on Thursday, March. 17, 2022, at the 2100 block of Lawrence Ave., in Indianapolis.

With this edition of Scrub Hub, we look into why utility companies are cutting the trees.

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We spoke with an AES representative and researched state and local ordinances to provide you with insight and clarity into why your trees may be getting a trim.

The short answer

Safety and reliability. AES representative Brandi Davis-Handy said those are the ultimate goals for the company when it comes to tree trimming and improperly maintained trees that can cause outages.

“Typical areas with significant outages have larger overgrown trees that have not been maintained, and that debris falls on the lines and damages them,” Davis-Handy said.

This happens especially during storms when winds clock in at 30 to 50 mph. AES has dealt with different things happening to limbs during storms, including falling on power lines, equipment or homes.

In addition to the regularly scheduled maintenance, the company also does some emergency cutting or clearing when a storm knocks trees or branches into precarious or dangerous positions.

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The biggest concern Davis-Handy hears is about the way the trees are trimmed.

Cutting and pruning is done by a trained arborist, she said, and though it may look slanted or aesthetically unpleasing, the trees are cut in a way to ensure the safety of the power lines and doing what is best for the life cycle of the tree.

“It may look weird, but it is proven to be the best and healthiest way to prune the tree,” she said.

AES needs 15 feet of clearance below and to the sides of lines.

The company works year-round as a preventative measure in what she called a comprehensive line-clearing program. Astute residents may notice the trees in front of their homes and apartments are usually only trimmed by the utility every three years.

Indiana’s administrative code makes sure companies work diligently to continue services with a set of standards for all public electrical utilities. The code plainly says tree trimming should maintain safe conditions around utility property, ensure reliable service and prevent potential hazards.

The long answer

Baked into that administrative code, the state makes sure companies carefully assess trees near power lines.

Trees can succumb to disease or damage, start leaning onto the lines, or the ground underneath could become unstable as soil erodes. It’s important that utility companies and the contracted trimmers are aware of all these variables

Workers will also look for evidence that the tree may have previously touched the lines. Burn marks and scarring can be visible from the ground or the truck’s elevated baskets. Companies are held accountable to maintain the trees and avoid situations that may put the public’s safety at risk.

To make sure the right trees are planted at correct distances from the utility lines, the state considers mature plants that will not reach a height greater than 12 feet to be compatible around power lines.

AES takes it a step further, offering customers and anyone interested with a resource to consider if planting new trees or landscaping.

The “Right Tree, Right Place” guideline says large trees that can grow to 40 feet or more should be planted at least 50 feet away from any power lines. Smaller trees that won’t grow above 25 feet must be at least 10 feet away. AES’s website notes that this is general advice and may not apply to all planting situations.

AES and its crews need to keep access open to any towers or poles and needs a 10-foot minimum clearing. Any tree planted on transmission line easements must go through approval at AES.

Employees of Wright Tree Service work on clearing branches and trees near power lines  on Thursday, March. 17, 2022, at the 2100 block of Lawrence Ave., in Indianapolis.
Employees of Wright Tree Service work on clearing branches and trees near power lines on Thursday, March. 17, 2022, at the 2100 block of Lawrence Ave., in Indianapolis.

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The transmission line easements typically are designated when the neighborhoods were first platted and are commonly known as rights-of-way.

Most of the company’s lines are on its own transmission easements, giving them the right to trim as they see fit. AES must provide customers and residents at least two weeks’ notice before the trimming begins.

The company has its own notification process, beginning with a note in the customers’ bill about two months before work begins, Davis-Handy said. AES will also begin talking with Homeowners Associations three months in advance to plan out the work.

A month prior to any trimming, AES sends out direct mailers and will also send out trained arborists to go door-to-door with flyers.

“We want to make sure no one is surprised by the work we are doing,” Davis-Handy said.

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Residents who do not want trees trimmed must notify utility companies at least two weeks before work is scheduled to begin, according to state code. But the AESs website says failure to grant permission could put the resident or homeowner at risk for any liability issues related to outages caused by their trees.

The state does prohibit utility companies from removing more than 25% of a tree or “topping” it by removing a drastic amount of its branches. This can change, however, if the tree is threatening safe and reliable service.

The state also requires utility companies to remove any leftover debris within three days, but Davis-Handy said AES has it cleared within 48 hours.

The Arbor Day Foundation’s website has guidelines and information for anyone interested in researching more about what is the right tree to plant near utility lines and how to care for them.

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at karl.schneider@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Tree trimming: Why are utility companies cutting these branches?