A Beginner's Field Guide To Pole-Watching


An estimated 160 million utility poles in the U.S. shore up with the millions of miles of crisscrossing cables that power our homes, phones and more. They're hard to miss, yet until recently, I'll admit I was mostly a utility pole dilettante. How often do most people really deconstruct the random wires, boxes, transformers, and industrial bric-a-brac hanging off them? Maybe you do. But if not, here's an introductory guide to pole ogling* after the jump...

[image via flickr]

*I did not mean that to sound vaguely sexual, but now that we're talking, yeah yeah, ha HA. The notion of observing a pole's "industrial ecology" is an elegant one. Like the rainforest, distinct regions at specific heights each encompass a unique ecosystem.1

Newton's Telecom Dictionary defines three spaces: Supply, Safety Zone, Communications. Brian Hayes, author of Infrastructure, breaks it down roughly the same: Power Company, Communications, "Yard-Sale Zone" (aka the "Kick ass bass player seeks bandmates for Dio/Megadeth explosion" zone aka "Tourist" zone). There's an intense amount of minutiae once you start looking at different poles, even those just a few blocks from one another. Some poles are choking on cables, power supplies, amplifiers, repeaters and more. Better to start with something less crowded. A typical pole near my home:

trans drum.jpg

The Florida Public Service Commission has a solid primer that makes deconstruction easy.


Simple rule of thumb: The higher you go, the more dangerous the cables and accoutrement are. The reason: safety. There can be 7,200 to 12,000 volts pumping through the top lines and transformer drums (in my photo, the two white buckets2, which are effectively mini versions of this mammerjammer). The transformers are responsible for converting that huge surge to locale wires that carry the much smaller voltage necessitated by residential spaces (typically 120/240v).

At the tip-top you'll often see a single, static wire (there isn't one in my photo), which releases excess charges to protect the "Transmission" in case of lightning. The three thinner wires running parallel across the very top beam (photo above) are the A /B/C phase wires. These feed into the drums, which then send power down to the "T," which distributes the charge through the secondary service drop cables, the higher-up lines you see heading everywhichway into homes and businesses. Below the "T" but above the next set of communication wires is the "Safety" zone, generally 30 inches below the transformer. This gives the phone company and others wriggle room to maintain the strands supplying your broadband (CATV), TV and phone wires. Here's what you might find on a pole that's exclusively CATV (image via Neal McLain):


If you want to dive in further, the resources cited here are pretty wonderful. There's also
Ed Sobey's A Field Guide to Roadside Technology (also on Google Books), which I've not read, and the aforementioned Infrastructure.

One last point that's hopefully obvious: Don't get too close. The results of one misstep can be gruesome. Here's what happened to a rookie lineman technician trying to splice 3-conductor #16 wire cable in North Carolina:

At 8:45 a.m. the victim positioned himself in a one-person articulated, truck-mounted aerial bucket 25 feet above the ground and slightly below the upper cross member of the utility pole...The victim did not use any boots, blankets, or other insulating material to cover the lightning arrestor conductors or other live conductors. The victim's insulated rubber gloves were in the tool tray located on the floor of the bucket... the physical evidence suggests the victim was holding the #16 wire cable with his left hand when his right hand came in contact with the lightning arrestor conductor. The victim cried out when his hand came in contact with the lightning arrestor conductor. The lineman on the ground looked up and saw the victim slumped in the bucket; he then ran to the truck and radioed for assistance... Finding the victim unconscious, the co-workers began CPR until the local EMS arrived. The victim was transported to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead at 9:55 a.m.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest due to contact with 7200 volts of electricity. The coroner reported electrical burns on the victim's right palm (entry wound) and electrical burns on the victim's left palm (exit wound).

Terrifying, which is why you and I shall continue to call it pole-watching.

1That analogy holds true in another respect: extinction. The push for more underground cabling and wireless is a good thing. The less we see, the better. But generations from now, we're likely to see fewer of them -- or at least, poles with new aesthetics. But I digress...

2The cross of the pole juxtaposed with the Church cross' was unintentional.

Join the Conversation


  1. I found “Infrastructure” to be an amazing book – a mind-blowing amount of information that describes our modern environment and Hayes includes a plenty of great photos as well.

    Did not find the other book as helpful, it was a little too simplified for me after reading Hayes’ book..

  2. Regarding the subject of underground cables, do you (meaning the general collective) think or know if there are any disadvantages to having buried power lines? I know there have been concerns about issues such as the effects of power line emissions on soil in which food is grown, and also cancer concerns….

  3. Not true,#1 Anonymous, Power cables are on poles in urban areas in GB but they usually twisted combined cables. There still are plenty of single multiple power cables on urban poles as well. The difference is, mostly, the cables are much tidier and organised than the USA!

  4. And also bear in mind that in the land of the not-so-free, the UK, youre likely to get arrested, have your memory card taken, a DNA sample taken and put on a list of potential terrorists.

    Be careful out there people!

  5. Interesting. Sometime Saturday night (4/18) “something” happened with the wires outside our house. Con Ed spent all day (from 6:30 am) and night (they were still there at 3 am) Sunday into Monday, blocking our driveway and not letting us out all day (they finally let us move the car around 7 pm). It’s kind of neat to actually figure out what they were working on, although I didn’t see the part about being trapped in your driveway in the article.

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