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Burying overhead power lines: Willmar Municipal Utilities continues line conversion

WILLMAR -- Residents may notice many boulevard trees, previously trimmed for overhead power lines, have been refilling with branches and leaves each season. That's because lines once draped from power poles and cutting through back yards are going underground.

For the past 31 years, the Willmar Municipal Utilities has been converting overhead power lines to underground service.

The program began when the Municipal Utilities Commission in April 1979 approved the first project to convert the overhead lines along Fourth Street and Fifth Street Southwest between Minnesota and Grace avenues to underground service, according to a Tribune news report.

Neighborhood beautification is only one benefit of burying the lines. The program reduces maintenance, tree trimming and exposure to damage and outages caused by squirrels, storms, lightning strikes and tree branches.

Power outages are fewer in frequency where lines are buried, but the duration of an outage may be longer because more time is needed to troubleshoot the problem.

Conversion affects mainly residential services in the older parts of town. Newer areas are developed with the lines already in the ground.

"We've been at this a long time,'' says Jeff Kimpling, manager of electric services for the Willmar Utilities. "Since 1979, I think we've missed two summers where we've been so busy where we just couldn't fit them in.''

Every year that line crews take overhead wires down means they spend less time trimming trees, says Kimpling.

"Many of the areas where we are totally underground, the only tree trimming that we do is when we'll go back out and if trees grow around the street lights, we'll clip around the street lights to get more light out. But every time they take a piece of wire down, they know they're not going to be trimming those trees anymore. That gives us time during the winter to do other maintenance.''

The big feeder lines along Willmar Avenue, First Street, County Road 5 and Lakeland Drive and near Ridgewater College and the golf course are a different class of wiring and may be buried some day down the road after the conversion projects are done, says Kimpling.

The Municipal Utilities Commission continues to support the conversion program.

"Our commissioners always put a priority on the conversion projects,'' says Kimpling. "They recognize the benefits of it. The people recognize the benefits of it.''

Kimpling updated the commissioners at their Dec. 28 meeting on conversion projects during the last 10 years.

In January 2000, the utilities had 937 overhead services. In January 2009, the utilities had reduced the number to 458 overhead services, for an average of about 48 services a year.

The term "service" typically refers to a power line coming from the pole to a person's home or business.

Willmar Municipal Utilities has 9,354 meters to commercial, residential, retail and industrial services, and about 5 percent of all services are overhead.

Before a neighborhood project begins, property owners are told where the line will be buried and where their meter will be placed. In nearly all cases, property owners are happy to see the improvement.

"And when it gets down to the bottom of the letter that says there's no cost to you for this, that really makes them happy,'' says Kimpling.

"Our linemen just love it when they go up on those poles for the last time and take the overhead transformers down or cut the wires down and come back and pull the poles.''

Remaining poles have street lights on them, fed by underground wiring. If a pole is in bad shape, the crew pulls the pole and replaces it with a new one and resets the street light.

"The only record that we have that there were overhead lines there is the poles that are left. It's been a good 10 years.''

Willmar is among the state's municipal utilities that are burying overhead power lines, says Steve Downer, associate executive director of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association.

"After 20 years with the association and after visiting every municipal electric utility and following what they do over the years, there is certainly a trend toward putting systems underground. Some cities' systems are entirely underground,'' says Downer.

"It seems to have some correlation to the frequency of wind and ice storms, particularly. The farther north and west you go, the more likely you are to see systems predominately or entirely underground,'' says Downer. "I think a lot of our member municipal utilities are moving underground. It's a trend.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150