Categories: Engineering

When Utility Poles, Power Lines, and Communication Wires Are Involved in Legal Disputes

TASA ID: 1563

Legal disputes arise from the interaction between utility poles, power and communication wires, people, and their vehicles.  Here are some of the factors that should be considered in any analysis of an issue involving poles and wires. 


The National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) provides guidelines for the placement of poles, the clearances between wires and between wires and other objects, including buildings and people.  The National Electrical Code (NEC) is not generally applicable to utility wires unless they are on the "customer's side of the meter."

Note that the NESC does not have the weight of a statute unless your state or local authority formally adopts it.  The code is edited and republished every five years, so it is imperative that you know which edition is in effect in your jurisdiction and which edition was in effect when the poles and wires were installed or last added to. Some states (e.g. California) have their own codes in lieu of the NESC.

Some codes in effect today pre-date the NESC, and utility personnel may not be aware of some of those code provisions.  As an example, the State of Washington wrote "Rules for Electrical Construction" in 1913, and most of those 98- year- old rules are still in effect and may overrule parts of the NESC.  Be aware that these older statutes may not be readily available at your local law library.


Utilities generally have published design and construction standards or guidelines for their designers and construction personnel.  Be prepared to challenge their standards, paying attention to the publication date of the standards in question.  Note that there is a difference between Construction Standards and Construction Guidelines.  Standards are more easily challenged for conformity than guidelines.  For this reason, utilities are moving away from the term "Standards" toward "Guidelines."

If a device, such as a wire connecting sleeve is suspect, find out what the manufacturer's instructions and cautions are regarding the application and use of it.  Utility guidelines may well be silent and, if so, the question of mis-application can be raised.

If there is no utility-prepared guideline, you can find generally accepted practices (rules) in Rural Utility Service Bulletins.  RUS is part of the US Department of Agriculture and was formerly the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).  Their rules are available online.  The Department of Defense also publishes guidelines (available online).  These are generally a restatement of the RUS rules. 


For wire pull-downs, there will be a question of wire height across a road.  By the time you go investigate the site, the wire will have been replaced, possibly at a different height.  A handy device for measuring wire height is a "clinometer." This is an optical instrument that measures vertical angles.  It takes some practice to obtain consistently good measurements.  Most models are calibrated to read direct heights from a distance of 66 or 100 ft.  Where a claim is made that a wire was too low, you or your expert can reconstruct the claimed height using the sag-tension equations found in several handbooks.


Consider a claim that a wire crossing a road was too low, resulting in damage to a passing truck and an adjacent pole.  You will need the span length, wire attachment height at each end of the span, the distance from one end of the span to the point of contact, and the claimed height at the contact point.

Those four values can be used to obtain the equation of the reported parabolic span and its lowest point.  The final step is to compare that value with the minimum code requirements and determine if the utility is in violation or that claim is patently false.


American National Standards Institute (ANSI) O5.1 ["Oh," not zero] "Wood Poles - Specifications and Dimensions." Available from webstore.ansi.org

National Electrical Safety Code (ANSI C-2) Editions prior to 1977 did not have an "extreme wind" requirement for pole strength. Starting in 1977, an extreme wind strength requirement was added.  Wind speeds varied with edition dates. Available from:  Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers at (800) 699-9277

The following publications are available for download online:

RUS Bulletin 1724E-150 "Unguyed Distribution Poles- Strength Requirements"

RUS Bulletin 1724E-152 "Mechanics of Overhead Distribution Line Conductors"

ARMY TM 5-684, NAVY NAVFAC MO-200, AIR FORCE AFJMAN 32-1082 "Facilities Engineering Electrical Exterior Facilities"

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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