Controlling Vegetation Growth at Work Sites

by Russ Mason, Jr.

In the not too distant future, all utilities will all be forced to deal with a common problem: growing season. (Those parts of the country with long or continuous growing seasons need to pay special attention.) Every one of us is far too familiar with the "Bush-Hog-Got-Me" syndrome, the cost of repairs, wasted man-hours, materials, time, and all that accompanies this dreaded problem.

Can you find the pedestal in the left hand picture? With the area around it covered by a special matting material, finding it in the future will be much easier.

As wondrous as the new season's growth is to us at first, in no time at all the problems begin. Vegetation control maintenance visits become commonplace (and expensive), hours are lost playing hide and seek with a pedestal you know is there (somewhere), and hazards such as snakes, fire ants, poison ivy, etc., that lie beneath the engulfing vegetation are numerous. We all share the same concerns, all the utility companies, Departments of Transportation, and the general public.

Until recently, there have been only three methods for approaching the growth of localized vegetation. We could trim, apply poisons, or ignore it completely. These have been found to be only temporary solutions that are costly in many ways, and more times than not pose hazards to company personnel, the public and the environment.

Typical Controls
Trimming is effective for a short period of time. But, taking into consideration the number of times a location needs repeat visits (many times two or more visits are required yearly), and then figuring the cost of each visit and that it is required year after year - whether performed by company personnel or contractors - is trimming truly cost effective ?

The second option is probably the most controversial: scheduled pesticide and/ or herbicide application to a work site, either by employees or contractors. Historically, chemical control of localized vegetation has been widely used and presumed to be the answer to all of our problems. Chemical control is seasonal and dependent upon the type of local vegetation. The application of these poisons is required at least annually, and must be applied at the correct time of the year .In most cases the need for additional chemical applications is more frequent. This varies depending on the type of vegetation that is prominent in the area. If there are a variety of different vegetation types, then multiple herbicide applications may be required.

In areas of long or constant growing seasons, the treatment cycle can be a year-long battle that becomes terribly expensive, and often is not entirely effective.

Because the majority of pedestals are located along ditches, there is always a risk of harmful chemicals seeping into the soil and contaminating water sources, even with proper application and control. This may very well result in rendering the soil and rural water supplies useless, cause permanent root destruction, and possibly harm wildlife. If the root system is destroyed it will affect adjacent vegetation such as trees, prize plants, and agricultural property. One company, for example, applied herbicides around some of their pedestals, and the adjacent sugar cane field and trees were accidentally affected. Their DOT has put them on some very tight requirements that must be implemented each and every time they apply herbicides/ pesticides.

Knowing when and how to apply chemical vegetation controls is the easiest part of using them. Obtaining legal authorization to apply these chemicals, and confronting the red-tape that comes with it, is also costly and a true bureaucratic headache.

Research at U-Teck found that the laws and regulations fall between different departments of the State and Federal Governments. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation are the two that play the most prevalent role in the right-of-way pesticide and/or herbicide application "game." We found these departments very helpful, but there are many loop-holes that leave all open for attack if the application of poisons is not handled properly and by the laws that govern their use and application. The laws are outlined in the IFRA (the Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) which was imposed by the EPA and is enforced and regulated by the USDA and individual state Departments of Agriculture. If your state has a Department of Agriculture, that is where you go for legal certification to apply herbicides/ pesticides. If your state does not have a Department of Agriculture, contact the local field offices of the USDA or EPA for further information. A company must have individuals certified to apply herbicide/pesticide in right-of-way areas. Failure to comply with the rules and regulations outlined in the IFRA could very well result in stiff fines and/ or penalties.

Once certified, you accept full legal responsibility for all work orders that bear your authorization for the application of any herbicides/pesticides. This is to say, if there is an accidental over-application, chemical spill, improper disposal of a container, or chemical reaction or injury to personnel, you could be held personally responsible.

The right-of-way area falls under the Department of Transportation. Each state varies slightly, but the area is the responsibility of the DOT and they determine what can and cannot take place in the right-of-way. In nearly all states utility companies must get written authorization - an "encroachment permit"- prior to even hiring a contractor to apply pesticides/herbicides.

Officials with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture stated, "The USDA, EPA, and FDA list of classifications, approved and banned pesticides/herbicides changes daily." This statement makes it clear that, even though effective, chemical control of vegetation can be a life-long commitment; what is safe and legal today may be a fatal carcinogen or environmental hazard tomorrow.

The third option is probably the easiest to apply… simply ignore the vegetation. But, has anyone ever truly figured the cost (the man-hours, the materials) of replacing a pedestal that was accidentally hit by a bush-hog, mower, or farm equipment? The time wasted searching for a pedestal on maintenance visits? The damage caused by brush fires? Problems caused by fire ant infestation? Or just simply the bad public relations caused by the unsightly condition of some of our outside plant equipment? Unfortunately, this option has been chosen more often than any of us would like to admit.

Everything considered, the options that have been there for us have served their purpose and will continue to do so in some cases. At a time when telcos are faced with increased demands for service, when many companies are contending with downsizing in personnel, and given the fact that all three options listed here are constant labor cost drains year after year, it is obvious that the time and need for an alternative method has never been greater.

A New Choice
The PED-MAT™ System solves the problems discussed, without the worries that accompany the use of the other methods of vegetation control. The problems had to be solved by a system or method that does not require repeat trips, has a long service life, poses no threat to the environment, requires no special authorization by the DOT for application, discourages fire damage to the work site, and is cost effective. Many utility companies have expressed the belief that U-Teck has developed just such a solution that in the Ped-Mat System. It safely, economically, and permanently solves these problems and more.

Large areas of vegetation can also be controlled. The site on the left had been treated three times in a year with herbicides, and to avail. The mat material is not harmful to the enevironment and lasts up to 15 years with no additional weed control needed.

First, companies are all becoming more environmentally conscious. Most of the utility companies have conformed to the "green" aspect of doing business. The mat system does not rely on herbicides or pesticides to prevent vegetation growth, and the system actually works with nature without residual effects to the vegetation, the soil, or the surrounding environment.

Vegetation requires three things to sustain growth: water, nutrients, and sunlight. The mat system deprives the local vegetation of only one: sunlight. Water and nutrients are allowed to penetrate the material due to a special manufacturing process. This allows the local root system to remain intact, unlike poisons that can kill or permanently damage the root systems and disturb the existence of adjacent vegetation. This is also important to prevent erosion.

There are no environmental concerns with the use of the mat. It has been deemed totally environmentally safe. It is constructed of a very dense, multi-directional needling of synthetic polyester fibers, and is totally impregnated in a special resin with ultraviolet inhibitors to safeguard against deterioration. The resin in the material is of a special formulation that allows the mat to conform to the contour of the ground after a few hours in the sun, yet it remains rigid enough to cling snugly to the ground. For added assurance, the pre-cut three-foot by four-foot mats are furnished with six specially designed stainless steel stakes to safeguard against wind, high water tables, or a mower passing over. This specially designed stake has a hook on the bottom that discourages accidental removal. It is estimated that the products can give up to 10 years of effective service.

Preparation for installation requires that the area to be protected should be cleared of all debris, existing vegetation should be trimmed to ground level, and the soil should be leveled as much as possible. The ground surface should not be treated in any other way.

The product is available in a number of configurations and sizes. Some are precut to protect an area three-feet wide by four-feet long around a pedestal, and some have perforated areas that match the complete assortment of sizes and shapes of pedestals. One version, for example, is designed to fit around any type of pedestal that is round; another is designed to fit square and rectangular pedestals; while another is provided with no perforated areas, to allow custom cutting for unusual conditions such as pole-mounted pedestals, double mounted pedestals, or pedestals that are close to other objects. In these cases, the mat is simply cut to fit with a sharp knife, a box opener or a cable skinning knife. The usual installation time is approximately five minutes.

The material is not restricted to usual pedestal configurations. It is available in rolls three-feet wide by 25-feet long and special sizes and shapes may also be ordered.

Another application for the mat system is around remote terminal sites. Historically these areas have been treated using crushed stone, clam shells or oyster shells. But doing this still requires maintenance two or three times a year. In these large area instances, rolls of material have been used to completely cover a wide range of area sizes, most approximately 25 feet by 25 feet. There is no limitation to the size areas that may be protected. Through a unique coupling system, rolls are joined by using stainless steel staples, and areas that are wider, longer, or odd shaped may be accommodated.

Areas around cross-connect cabinets, even though on a concrete slab, also can use the rolls. Frequently, companies add an additional three-foot area of protection around these slabs. In rural areas this provides a clear, safe work area for craft personnel. Custom cuts for specific needs include one company that protects a specific diameter around their marker posts. This disc is pre-cut to allow the material to simply slide down the already existing marker post.

If it is necessary to dig around a pedestal site that has the mat material installed, it is a simple process to remove the stakes and mat, complete the work operation, replace the mat and secure it again with the stakes.

An Added Benefit
An interesting phenomenon has been observed in areas with a high infestation of fire ants. Studies by the USDA show that fire ants are naturally attracted to electricity. Therefore, there is a natural attraction to pedestals. Studies also show that these ants build their mound up and around the pedestal, boring down and up into the pedestal, shorting out blocks and modules. A more serious problem is that fire ants eat the insulation on the cable conductors in an attempt to locate the source of the electrical field. This results in service outages.

Fire ants are distinctive by their large mounds. It is estimated that for every inch they bore underground, the mound height increases an inch. This is how they redistribute the soil. They are especially attracted to an area that has been freshly plowed or trenched, such as an area leading into a pedestal. It has been observed upon return visits to areas utilizing the mat system that fire ants were not present. It is surmised that the presence of the mat system discourages the building of fire ant mounds, and the fire ants simply move to a more inviting area.

The mat products are available in "Pedestal Green," which blends well with the landscape, and "Bright Orange," for locations where high visibility is desired. Both color versions standout, draw attention, and assist in providing protection from mowers and other equipment, as well as provide tremendous assistance in locating the pedestal during maintenance visits.

The material has been used for over two years with great success in all areas of the country, not only by telephone companies, but by other utilities and municipalities as well.

On return visits to sites where the mats have been installed, companies have observed no growth of vegetation, and all previously existing vegetation under the mat was completely dead. Further investigation showed no damage to the soil or the root structure below ground.

In short, only the vegetation that needed to be controlled was eliminated.

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