Utility poles don't grow on trees -- or do they?

News-DemocratMay 9, 2014 

What kind of trees are used to hang electric and telephone lines? Is there some sort of secret power company tree farm that grows them so straight? -- V.B., of Fairview Heights

A farm for growing utility poles? Why, that sounds as silly as people cultivating square watermelons to make them more efficient to ship and store.

Which means, of course, that's exactly where Ameren gets the thousands of new poles it needs every year, says Brian Bretsch, the power company's communications executive in Collinsville. While several types of wood are used, most companies favor Southern yellow pine grown on farms throughout the South.

"There is a specific type of yellow pine known for its tall, straight trunks with few limbs, so they make very good utility poles," Bretsch told me. "Trees are harvested and replanted and typically grow to harvest size in three to five years. The farms themselves are privately owned -- but not by utilities."

A pole's average lifespan is about 40 years (if no cars run into them) thanks to a chemical treatment that fends off bugs and decay. The average cost is $325 per pole and Ameren installs about 12,000 new poles each year, so that's nearly $4 million spent on poles alone.

Currently, Ameren has approximately 1.3 million poles and 9,500 multipole structures across its 43,700-square-mile service area.

And here's something you may not have even thought of: Ameren is also part of the Avian Protection Program, which works to make these poles safer for our fine feathered friends.

"It's a good perch for them to stand up there or even try and build a nest, so they've used our pole tops for many decades," says Riley Adams, an Ameren engineer who is also a member of the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee.

Unfortunately, many power lines have 8-foot crossarms with three evenly spaced conductors on them. That configuration doesn't leave enough room for a large bird to spread its wings without touching a conductor. So Ameren has been installing plastic covers on the middle conductor to help prevent birds from being zapped.

The company hired Engineering Data Management to locate all eagle and osprey nests in Illinois, using GPS coordinates. Since 2012, Ameren Illinois has retrofitted 1,400 structures on about 150 circuits in high-density raptor areas to make them more bird-friendly.

"That's the whole goal -- to save as many raptors as we can," Adams said.

Nevertheless, such birds still may be injured and killed. Both the public and company employees are required to call organizations such as the Treehouse Wildlife Center in Alton and the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis if they find an injured or dead raptor, including hawks and owls.

When will the next total solar eclipse be seen in St. Louis? -- O.S., of O'Fallon

Be sure to circle Aug. 21, 2017, on your calendar, when the first total solar eclipse visible in St. Louis since 1991 will take place.

But, interestingly, only the southern half of the metro-east will experience complete totality, so make sure you visit eclipse2017.org to see exactly where you'll need to be to enjoy the full effect. Better hurry: only 1,198 days to get ready, the group's countdown clock says.

Taylor-made: My recent answer on Taylor Sales in Belleville seems to have evoked many happy memories from past customers.

Turns out the store apparently handled the kind of merchandise you often found on the back of comic books -- you know, things like the old X-ray specs and handshake buzzers.

"As a small kid back in '72, '73 ... we used to call it 'the joke shop,'" said Gary Simmons, of Fairview Heights. "I remember it had three counters with one thing in the middle where we used to buy stink bombs and fake fingers and everything."

Older folks remembered buying fireworks there when it was still mostly known as a smoke shop. But Ron Speiser, who ran Freeburg Bowl for 32 years, also recalls when owner Herschel Taylor branched out into video games and pinball machines in the early '70s.

"I used them in my business," Speiser said. "Then, after he passed away (in 1981) his son, Bud, took over the business, had it for a year and then sold it to Renner Amusements in Collinsville. So then I had them until they went out of business."

Final reminder: Get that old electronics junk out of your house during the Belleville Kiwanis Club's recycling event from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at Rural King in Swansea. They'll take anything with a battery or cord -- including the batteries and cords. It's free except for televisions and monitors, which are $5-$15, depending on size. They're also looking for old, but wearable shoes.

Today's trivia

What does the engine-additive brand name STP stand for?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: Arnold Schwarzenegger broke into the movies in 1969 as "Hercules in New York" -- but you never would have known it from the credits. Still best-known for his bodybuilding prowess, Schwarzenegger was listed as "Arnold Strong, Mr. Universe" and even his voice was dubbed because his accent was incomprehensibly thick. Ironically, one of the co-stars in the film was Arnold Stang of Chunky chocolate commercial fame.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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