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10/27/2015

How successful are you at predicting the weather? If at all effective, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) linemen would value your input.

The fickleness of Mother Nature gives line personnel the only constant in their daily routine. From heavy rains to extreme heat, the conditions can mess with the best-made plans. So, in other words, expect the unexpected when part of a line crew.

At SVEC, you can be assured that linemen are ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice to respond to whatever situation arises. This is on top of a long list of projects that wait their turn in the rotation.

I can offer my stamp of approval after spending parts of two days with a line crew this summer, my first with SVEC. The small window into their world opened my eyes: It’s refreshing to see jobs that are in no way simple be finished as effortlessly as if the task at hand were putting on a pair of pants.

My first field experience was cut short, unfortunately, because of wet ground after days of rain and the forecast for more that afternoon. Muddy terrain and the threat of precipitation put all planned “live wire” work on hold and eventually canceled any sort of job because it wasn’t worth the potential damage to SVEC equipment or member-owners’ personal property.

This is part of a lineman’s “normal.”

Still, on this day, like all others, crews began with unstated optimism that the next eight hours would go smoothly as planned. They started by preparing and loading necessary equipment before developing a travel route: It’s common for a crew to be sent to the far reaches of a county on any given day.

Despite the wet weather, one major project was completed – the installation of a pad-mounted, or ground, transformer at a farm in western Rockingham County. All I could think of as I watched the SVEC crew in action was the “claw machine” – the arcade game in which you maneuver, often unsuccessfully, a mechanical claw over and down to a prize, which is usually a stuffed animal.

In this instance, the experience was triumphant, as an older transformer was uninstalled and swapped out for the new, larger one with a crane, or “claw.” From the operation of the machinery to unhooking and tightening of transformer pieces, the crew had no missteps.

I realize that’s to be expected, but it also shouldn’t be overlooked or taken for granted. I could tell how the unforeseen would keep a crew on its toes, even if the work itself seems ordinary to an outsider. A black widow spider, for example, was inside the old transformer. Who knows what earthly being – a copperhead or any other type of snake comes to my mind – might be at the next job site?

My second trip with the crew solidified my initial impression of how spur of the moment and risky the job gets. Before my 7 a.m. arrival, linemen were called out to work on an outage caused by a storm. Keeping member-owners’ lights on is top priority in a line crew’s routine. When outages occur, all attention is directed to restoring power.

Of course, since SVEC cannot predict outages, crews proceed with maintenance and construction projects, checking them off the to-do list based on how urgent repairs or upgrades are needed.

This day proved to be one of the summer’s hottest, and the morning’s outage meant that the crew would be working on its check list smack dab in the middle of the afternoon.

The primary task was switching a house under construction from temporary power to permanent electricity. This required a host of duties, which included digging a ditch from the house to the pad-mount transformer; running wire to the equipment; and rewiring the device itself.

It may have been my own ignorance, but until visiting this site, I hadn’t considered how diversified a lineman’s skills must be. For things I see, I tend to visualize how they reach their present form – such as the steps to getting a utility pole upright.

As for installing underground wire that I know exists and yet I can’t see, I don’t often think about all the layers involved, not to mention the fact the same electricity flows through as one finds along the lines above. It’s out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

There’s something to be said for this: Regardless of whether you can see the finished product of an SVEC line crew’s work, the job is done swiftly and safely. Again, that’s the way it should be, but just imagine the ramifications if it’s not.

The next time you see linemen in action, express your appreciation. And, if you have inside knowledge on the coming days’ weather, please share it so they can plan accordingly.

– Preston Knight, public relations representative