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by Hugh BarbourView Icon Profile
Power Line Technician
West Kootenay Power

For those of us who like to make an insulator hunt a real quest, this information is to let you know about the dangers of the lines. To show you a few of the basics in order to keep you safe. I have been a lineman since 1989 and may be able to offer a few pointers. Knowing a little about pole condition will get you a long way. The thing about old insulators is that they are always on old structures. Unless you support a rotten pole it will more than likely fall over. Just the fact that you untie a conductor may make the pole fall. There are many weights and forces to consider. There are various types of wires on poles. Telephone, telegraph, electrical lines are not obvious to a novice. Being able to identify what the wires are used for is skill the trained person has. I guess that I am trying to keep you insulator collectors out there safe. This information is for the people who want to be well informed. We all hope to have that ultimate insulator hunt.

For those of you who may not read this complete article, I'll repeat the Recommendations section here:

Stay off the poles! There are just to many factors for the average insulator collector to keep in mind. Think about this and make your own conclusion. I conclude that this profession is a dangerous one and the people doing the job must respect this fact. Make good decisions in your life and “Be Safe”.

Happy insulator collecting!!

But, if you want more details, I encourage you to read on!

 Safe Ways To Collect Insulators

The Hunt

It causes the insulator collector great happiness when a lineman has dropped a jewel for him/her to find. The feeling is excitement for the true collector. Line crews will leave the old hardware behind for many reasons. You will probably have the best chance to find insulators in remote area as most of a lineman’s climbing gear and tools must also be also carried in and out of these locations. Carrying out insulators and hardware is another trip and sometimes are left behind. The old hardware is generally thrown in the garbage so I guess collectors are doing an environmental service by picking up this unusable debris. I think it is a good idea to ask permission to hike into some areas. You never know when you may be on private property.

Bear and other wild animals are also a consideration. One area that I hunt is in Grizzly bear country. I always take a partner with me on these hunts and stick to the main right-of-way. Buy a map, know the area, look for bear sign (stools), carry bear spray, tell someone where you are, carry a first aid kit, take bug spray, take bee sting medicine, take a cell phone, are all good tips if you are a long way from civilization.

We all have our idea of the ultimate hunt. Try the railway line or the long lost mine. A nice long hike through the old right-of way is the way to find an insulator. This is the collector’s ultimate quest.

The Lineman

Most of these guys are not half bad. I have met macho linemen as well as gentle. If you luck out he may give you an insulator if you smile nice or give him a handshake. They have been known to drink a couple of soda pop after work as well. You get the idea. I am sure that every insulator collector knows at least one lineman. I know quite a few. I have heard stories of a fellow who offered the line crew $50 American for an insulator from the line they were working on. I later found out who this character was. He is one of the most active collectors and is a great guy.

The Shops

Many insulator collectors buy their first insulator from the shelf of the old second hand store. Check that antique and junk store, you may find something great.

The Internet

Insulators.info has an excellent insulator for sale page. This page has lists of insulators for sale at reasonable prices. I have had luck in trading insulators by contacting collectors listed on the web site. Insulators.info has a web ring where individual collectors have posted “for sale” lists and insulator information. Auction sites such as eBay have many insulators to offer in all shapes sizes and colors.


Crown Jewels of the Wire and other magazine subscriptions list “insulators for sale” at reasonable prices.

 Important Safety Issues to Consider

The number one priority is your safety. Knowing what you are getting yourself can save your life. When you work for a utility all conductors on all lines must be totally isolated and grounded before any hand contact is made. You must contact the P.I.C. (Person In Control) in charge of the circuit for the appropriate protection paper work and/or switching. Any accidental contact is a major concern for the safety effort. Here are some ways that the conductor may become energized.

Induction caused by wind

The motion of wind running across a conductor will cause a current to flow through the conductor. This current is enough to kill you so beware of a line you think may be de-energized.

Induction caused by other power source

If an energized power line is in the proximity of a de-energized conductor, its magnetic field will cause current to flow through the conductor. Remember the line may not be in view and could be crossing several spans or miles away. This current may be enough to kill you. You could even get a dangerous shock from a farmer’s fence that had been strung under a high voltage line.


All power sources must be considered. Back feed comes from many sources. Seemingly harmless conductor can be energized. “A piece of tech cable up a pole”, “an old signal supply strung on rail arms”, are examples of the endless possibilities. Do not assume the power was disconnected or conductor lying on the ground is de-energized. Back-feed will also occur when a customer hooks a generator up to his home panel. The power generated will back-feed onto the distribution system through the transformer. This could be deadly for a lineman.


The lightning can hit the line miles away and a surge of power will rush through the circuit. A lineman would protect himself with an equal-potential grounding system.


You could never know the status of a stretch of line unless you used an approved voltage tester (not a voltmeter) and some safety grounds are installed. This type of work is for the trained professional.

 Pole Safety


Before any pole is climbed an inspection of the pole must be checked. A pole will generally rot out at the butt, just under ground level. The problem is worse in damp, shaded or swampy areas. Insects can devour a portion of the pole butt as well. A quick test is to use a heavy hammer to drive your large screwdriver into the butt, just under ground level. Do this in a few spots around the pole. Is the base soft and mushy or solid and sound? Hit the base of the pole with a heavy hammer. The sound will give you a good idea if it is hollow. Another test is to give the pole a good push.

Remember that the butt is not the only place the pole can be deteriorated. Look for other signs of decay or abnormalities. A woodpecker can also do significant damage to a wooden structure. Do not take this lightly. You do not get a second chance.

Gain Height

The pole itself will give you some valuable information. On the face of the pole is a gain mark. Usually this will be a flat-planed area, which marks the pole 12 feet from the bottom or base of the hole. Often the date nail will be fastened on or near the gain mark. This mark allows a person to look at the height of the gain mark from the ground and determine how far it is planted into the ground. If the gain is 6 feet from the ground, it is 6 feet in the ground. Remember that the pole length could have been altered. I have seen pole butts cut off to fit a hole. This can be a dangerous thing to do as it deceives the person climbing the pole.

Pole Depth

Ten percent plus two feet is an excellent rule of thumb. If the pole is 35 feet high you take ten percent of 35 and add 2. This means a 35-foot pole should be 5.5 feet in the ground to be at a safe depth to support itself. You always must take into consideration the soil type and water content of the soil. It’s hard to keep poles standing in a swamp or an unstable area. The height of a pole is usually stamped in the pole near the gain mark.

Date Nail

A nail with the date marked on the head. It is nailed into the pole near or on the gain stamp. This is an excellent warning device for the utility worker. If the pole is 30 years old or more it will tell me to pay extra care in assessing the stability.

Test Date and Tags

Most utilities have a professional pole testing company do tests to determine the need to replace poles. The most common test is a butt test. A small amount of dirt is removed from the base of the pole and a plug of pole is drilled out from the middle of the butt. The condition of the wood removed is assessed and the pole is marked accordingly. If the pole is sound a test date and pole number is recorded and a tested date attached to the pole. If the pole is rotten it will be marked with an appropriate tag. “BAD ORDER POLE, DO NOT CLIMB” is what we use now. A red and blue tag system is also used. Red meaning bad order and blue meaning the pole could be stubbed. Some utilities use a “X” tag, meaning bad order pole.

Supporting Poles

If a lineman had to climb a pole he thought was rotten or in poor condition he/she would take precautions. One way to do this is to climb a safe distance (6-8 feet) up the pole and attach three or four ropes. The ropes can then be tied off in different directions so the pole will remain stable when he/she climbs higher. Remember that you must know proper knot tying methods and rope weight capabilities. For example power-braid nylon is stronger than regular nylon rope. The bigger of two identical types of rope, the stronger it is. You must know what you are doing!

Guy Wires

I know a fellow who collects rail insulators. He has a love for trains and spends hours walking the tracks. I knew some of the places he had been going for years and was also aware that the structures were still standing but no conductor remained. I asked him one day how he was able to get the insulators down. He told me that a lot of the structures have guy wires and he climbed them to retrieve the insulators. This man is very lucky to have never fallen. These poles are many years old and some structures have fallen down. You must know that any pressure or weight put on a guy wire causes the pole to move toward the guy.

Hardware and anchor condition is an important issue. I have seen bolts so rusted that a bit of extra strain on a guy has broken the bolt or pulled a nut off. In days gone by, anchor rods were drilled through wooden pole pieces or deadheads and buried in the ground. As time passes the wooden deadhead will rot and the anchor pulls out of the ground. You must also consider that extra weight on a guy will cause a rotten pole to fall.


I would never let anyone take any unnecessary risks. If you don’t know what you are doing, stay down off the poles. If you insist on climbing to get insulators, be well informed and make good decisions. Line work can be dangerous for an experienced professional. Try signing onto a lineman’s chat line sometime. You might notice that most linemen would sign off saying, “Be safe” or “Work Safe”. There has to be a good reason they repeat this!

From The Book

West Kootenay Power
Safety and Health Standards
Climbing of Wood Poles

1. Preamble

1.1 Wood poles form an important part of the Power system inventory. They are used throughout the electrical system to support power lines at distribution and transmission voltages.

1.2 Wood poles must be handled with care at all stages of their use. They are a potential source of hazard to employees when they are being transported, stored, erected, climbed, sawn or made ready for disposal.

2. Testing Poles Before Working on Them

2.1 The requirement to make sure standing poles are safe before they are climbed is specified in O. H.& S. 19.3 and S.P.R. 404.1. (This is our local Safety practice regulation. May be different in other areas)

2.2 When assessing the soundness of a pole it is useful to know its identity, its age and the history of treatment. There are 4 other aspects of a standing pole which should be considered:

- condition of the pole
- position and condition of the guys
- The wind load on the pole and attachments, conductors, transformers, capacitors, reclosers, etc
- condition of the earth

2.3 Visual Inspection: on the pole look for signs of decay, especially at the ground line, and breaks, splits and woodpecker holes. In the surrounding earth look for sloughing and swampy or water soaked soil. Check guys for slackness or excessive tension. A pole marked for stubbing or replacement must not be climbed unless it is supported.

2.4 Tests: If there is any indication of decay or damage resulting from the following tests, the pole or structure should be given additional support to ensure that it does not fall.

2.4.1 Sway Test: Severe internal decay and rot below the ground line can be detected by swaying the pole with hand lines or pike poles if attachments permit. Care is needed to protect employees and others against the possibility of the pole falling.

2.4.2 Sound Test: This is a means of detecting internal decay by discerning the sound when the pole is struck with a hammer. Hammer blows should be made around the pole from the ground line to about eight feet above. If the pole sounds hollow bore tests should be done.

2.4.3 Bore Test: The internal condition of the wood pole can be found by drilling it with a hand brace and an extended 13/16-inch drill bit. The penetration should be made at or below the ground line with the drill bit aimed at the centerline of the pole. The drill may be inclined 45 degrees to the axis to minimize excavation of the earth.

Indications of decayed wood are:

- increase in speed of penetration of the drill
- sudden collapse of wood under the drill
- powdery borings

If a hole gives suspicion of decay, 2 additional holes should be bored at the same level, displaced by 120 degrees for confirmation. Each bore hole should afterwards be plugged with a 7/8-inch diameter by 2-inch long treated wooden or 1 5/8-inch long plastic dowel.

If there is a confirmed internal decay, a pole inspector should evaluate its extent by calculating the effective shell thickness of the above ground and below ground portions of the pole. In an emergency situation crew should support the pole by following the procedures in section 3.

2.4.4 Prod Test: This requires a trench to be dug on the wettest side of the pole, 30 to 45cm deep and one shovel wide. Its length should be sufficient to allow a screwdriver to be used as a prod to find surface decay or cracks. The prod test may also be used above ground level where surface decay is suspected.


This is a West Kootenay Power standard and the rules and standards will change in each area. These are good guidelines to follow in the name of safety.


Ladders have been and will probably continue to be used to remove insulators from short rail and telegraph poles. This could be a very dangerous thing to do, not to mention illegal. I give you this information, as I know people won’t always listen to advice. At least you might look out for the hazards! I know that most insulator collectors stay with-in the law 99.9 percent of the time.

Something to remember when you climb a ladder that is leaning up against a rotten pole, the weight of you and the ladder may cause the rotten pole to fall.


Aluminum is a conductor. This type of ladder will complete the path to ground. You may also be part of the path. Aluminum ladders have been totally removed from most utility operations. Keeps this ladder away from any conductor!!


Wood is an insulator but can become contaminated and wet. When a ladder is dirty and wet the insulation value can be decreased. Utilities have been going away from wood ladders. Some wood ladders have steel bracing built onto them. The steel in the ladder is a conductor and will complete the path to ground. Keep these ladders away from conductors.


Approved fiberglass ladders are insulated. This is the safest ladder for the utility worker. I could never recommend using a ladder for insulator collecting because there are so many other factors to be considered. Be safe!

Tools and Equipment

Eye Protection

Breaking glass, tie wire oxidation, wood dust, electrical arcing, conductor ends, are some of the things a lineman can get into his/her eyes. Just simply untying a copper conductor can make the oxidation on the tie-wire shoot into your eyes. Not a pleasant thing to happen. A utility worker should always have safety glasses available.


Hardhats are and have been standard issue for the utility worker. Chinstraps have recently been added to the list of standard safety items. If a worker is to be more than 10 feet off the ground he/she must be wearing a chinstrap to hold the hardhat in place. Remember, if you drop an insulator (by accident) from the top of a pole it can seriously hurt a person standing underneath. This sort of thing can and will continue to happen. Use common sense and it will never happen to you.


Harnesses are usually used for bucket applications although there are some harnesses you can climb in. Use the right equipment for the job and always inspect all harnesses for wear and defect. Do not use questionable equipment, as it is important to your well being. Remember that climbing is a skill that takes years to develop.


Pole belts come from a variety of manufacturers. It is important to be familiar with your equipment and to do routine inspections each time you use it. I have been climbing poles for several years and still do not feel totally comfortable in all situations. Leaning poles, climbing obstructions, touch potential, shell rot, pole stubs these are just some of the things you may run into. If your a person interested in doing line work for a living or even in hanging lighting in your own yard, do some practice first. Find a stable pole with no utilities attached and climb up six feet, move around the pole, climb down, lean out, get used of your equipment. Use common sense as you are taking your life into your own hands.

Most utilities have changed to a two-point attachment system. A lineman’s belt is equipped with a second belt or pole strap. Before the first pole strap is removed to belt around an obstacle, the second strap is attached. The worker is never disconnected from the pole.

Unqualified workers should not climb utility poles. There are just to many risks involved in doing this. The point to giving the insulator collector this information is to educate them to the hazards of climbing poles. A little bit of information will either change your mind or make you aware enough to keep you safe.

Hooks or Spurs

Inspection of your climbers is important. Leather straps, climber and gaffs must be in good condition. Check all pins and screws for tightness and fractures. Gaffs should be sharp and have the correct angle on them to keep you up the pole. Ask a qualified lineman or tree climber to give you hand with this. This is one of the most important things to consider as without proper equipment you are taking unnecessary risks.

Stay off the poles! There are just to many factors for the average insulator collector to keep in mind. Think about this and make your own conclusion. I conclude that this profession is a dangerous one and the people doing the job must respect this fact. Make good decisions in your life and “Be Safe”.

Happy insulator collecting!!


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Written Saturday, December 30, 1999