Beginners Guide to Doing Line Work in Hawaii

The Lineman Life Podcast
Sunset, Big Island of Hawaii

I worked as a lineman for over 30 years at my company South Carolina Electric & Gas. I had pretty much seen it all, done it all, knew it all. I was burnt out, I felt I had nothing left to learn. I was ready for a change of scenery, my wife felt the same way. “What about Hawaii?” she asked. We had visited Hawaii Island back in 2012. After this conversation I applied for a job at Hawaii Electric Light Company. I had no idea that anything would come out of it and I would probably go another 10 years or so at SCE&G and retire as an old lineman. Surprisingly, I got a call back about a job, they asked,”are you serious about moving all the way from S.C. to Hawaii to work?” 3 months and a couple of telephone interviews later I got the call to come to Hawaii to go to work. The job I would be doing was called Construction Project Manager which was similar to what I was doing running contractors and checking jobs that came from Engineering. When I told my boss I was giving him two weeks notice, his chin almost hit the floor, he said “no way you’re leaving, you have almost 35 years here.” My mind was racing, “why am I leaving the seniority and security of this job for an unknown?” “If this job in Hawaii doesn’t work out, I am screwed, there is no going back.” but I never let him see the indecision I was feeling. I retired from SCE&G. I had a couple of weeks before we moved to pack and I was getting used to the idea of leaving S.C. But then I went to say goodbye to some of my buddies that I had worked with for decades, one of my buddies said to me “Spooner, you’re crazy, those guys are going to hate you.” Man, I was thinking, “am I doing the right thing?” I arrived on Hawaii Island on October 7th, 2013., When I stepped off that plane it was a leap of faith, I didn’t know at that time how much different the working conditions would be and the things I would have to learn.

What I discovered immediately was the differences are huge, I have worked all over the southeast and I’ve seen a lot of things, but I was never prepared for what I found here. I am going to share with you a couple of the biggest differences.Let’s start with the weather.

Weather: Hawaii island is made up of 5 volcanoes, 4 of which are considered active, however only one, Kilauea is flowing lava at this time. 2 of the volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are close to 14,000 feet high. They are both located in the middle of the island. The two major cities Hilo and Kailua-Kona are on opposite sides of the island with the two mountains separating them. This makes for very different weather patterns in each city even though they are separated by only 90 miles. The trade winds out of the northeast hit the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa and pull moisture out of the air. Hilo, which is on the east side of the island is affected by this and gets over 130 inches of rain a year. If you are a lineman in Hilo you better have your rain gear handy because it rains a lot. It is also a little cooler on the east side due to the trade winds but it can get muggy due to the moisture. The other problem is vegetation growth, with warm weather and lots of rain trees and vines grow like crazy. There are some trees called albizia on Hawaii Island that hat grow feet in a year. As you can imagine this causes havac for the system.

Now over to Kona where it is in the rain shadow of the two big mountains. Many places get less than 20 inches per year. It is also very hot on the West Side, it is always between 70 to 85 degrees here year round. Iif you are a lineman here you better be ready to deal with hot weather especially when you have to wear sleeves, balaclava and gloves to do hot work. It is very common in Kona to set up pop up tents on the jobsite to get some relief from the direct sun, especially when do underground work terminating cable.

I forgot to mention the town of Waimea, which is a smaller town but we also have a base-yard located there. It is kind of in the middle between Hilo and Kona. It gets a combination of the weather the other two towns see. Waimea is located at about 2700 feet. The weather there is very cool, in winter it can get down to the upper 40’s. However if you head down towards the coast in 30 minutes you can go from 40’s to 70’s. Some of their district is wet and cool and some of it is hot and dry, just depends on where you are. Linemen here need to be prepared because you never know what type of weather you will be getting.

The Grid: The first thing I want to talk about is grid, where I work on Hawaii Island, we  get more that 57% of our generation needs from renewable energy We’ve got Geo-thermal, wind, some small hydro plants and a lot of rooftop photo-voltaic. I believe about 25% of all houses have PV. All this adds up to a constant battle for the people who control the grid here. Have you ever heard of the term under frequency? Since I came from the mainland where all companies have transmission tie lines to deal with load issues. I had never heard that term. Since Hawaii Island is an island there are no ties. If a plant suddenly trips offline or you lose a circuit during the day that is using PV to feed the circuit, there is no backup generation available for the load. The causes an under frequency, if there wasn’t some sort of protection the whole grid would go down. So what we have is a load shedding scheme. What that means is when the system loose generation and the frequency begin to fall; certain circuits in blocks are tripped offline to prevent a whole island blackout. This means outages to thousands of customers, but at least not everyone is out.

Overhead: Digging holes for poles, one of the first things I noticed was there were no augers on any of the line trucks. This is due to the fact Hawaii Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian Island and is composed of rock. When I say rock I mean you won’t dig but a couple of inches and you hit solid rock. An auger to dig a pole hole is worthless here. Instead holes are dug by contractors. They use a jackhammer and an air compressor to dig holes. They hammer it out and remove the debris with a 5 gallon bucket which is loaded with debris in the hole and hauled up with a rope. They will be down in the hole where you can’t see the top of their heads digging because most of the time there is no danger from cave-in. I used to think tree trimmers were tough and underpaid however these hole diggers take it to another level. How long does it take to dig a hole? it depends on the type of rock. Normally it takes a day or two to dig a hole but, we do have a type of rock here referred to as blue rock that has taken 5 days to dig one 7 foot hole. The cost per pole can be thousands of dollars. I also forgot to mention that the anchors have to be dug out also, no screw anchors here. The other thing you have to realize is that any big jobs have to be planned way in advance because the holes and all of the anchors have to be dug before the crew’s even show up to set poles. Same thing when you have a car hit a pole, you have to call out hole diggers to help dig out the butt before you can replace the pole. In Hawaii most poles are set in road R/W which means they are sitting ducks for anyone running off of the highway. Cars hitting poles here is a very common thing and it keeps the crews with plenty of work. This is very different from anywhere I have worked; we just dig the whole, plant it and go. One more little thing about poles here, some placed we have to put a steel mesh termite wrap on the poles at ground level to stop termites from eating the poles. I have even seen them tunnel up through the ground molding to bypass the wrap. All I can say is those termites are some tough bastards if they can eat treated poles, unbelievable.

Underground: We you might ask about underground here, yes we have it. It also has to be hammered out by equipment. Typically large excavators with very large hydraulic hammer which chip away with the rock. Any underground jobs here cost 4 or 5 time more than a typical job in SC. The trench cost here is several hundred dollars per foot. They also put everything in a duct banks with conduit and flowable fill to cover it. They also use manholes in front of every transformer; I am talking about vaults big enough to stand in. Yes even a small single phase subdivision is done this way. The other thing that is unusual here is all underground is paralleled. For example if you run cables between two circuits as a tie, there will be 2 runs of cable instead of one. They don’t really use a loop system here so every run has a matching cable. So underground switching here is very complicated. In SC and most other systems a loop system is used and serves the same function without redundant cables. It works here, but it is just different.

They also made the same mistakes back in the 70’s that every other utility on the mainland did by direct burying everything. In SC we paid the price for this when the wire needed to be replaced; we used directional boring to reduce digging in people’s yards when replacing the cable. That really won’t work here in Hawaii, since it is solid rock, directional boring here is worthless. This means having to dig up neighborhoods to replace the old cable. Remember when I mentioned everything was hammered out? Well people here get very annoyed when a jackhammer is running all day in their neighborhood. Again planning ahead here is critical, neighborhood meetings to let residents know what we are doing and strict work hours to get the cable replaced.

Threats: On the mainland you deal with Hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms and wind storms. In Hawaii we have to deal with other threats. We have hurricanes here just like on the east coast, we have been lucky in we haven’t had any major hurricanes since I have been here only a small tropical storm. It still did major damage due to the amount of vegetation we have here but if a cat 3 or 4 storm hits here it could be a problem. Just like Puerto Rico we are islands 3000 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. There are not a lot of resources to call upon to help with restoration. We have very few contractors here so extra crews would have to be brought from the other islands or from the mainland, which would takes time and money which might make for a lengthy restoration if the storm is bad. Also if the other islands here are affected they will have to take care of their area first before they help the other islands.

We also have bad earthquakes in Hawaii, in 2006 a 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit here which knocked out the whole island. Earthquakes can occur at any time, there is no warning for earthquakes like a hurricane.

Tsunami, on March 10, 2011 a tsunami hit Kailua-Kona, it did a lot of damage to the shore and many houses and business were damaged. Bigger tsunamis have hit Hilo in 1946 and 1960 they killed hundreds and destroyed the whole downtown area which had to be completely rebuilt. Tsunami have taken more lives than all other threats combined. Tsunamis are a constant threat here. Warnings can be as short as 20 minutes or take several hours.

Lava flow, in 2014 the active volcano Kilauea which has been flowing lava since 2007 had a change in the course of its flow. Lava was moving toward the town of Pahoa. Pahoa is in the Puna district and has a very big population and we have a large transmission and distribution system there. We had several weeks to prepare for the lava impacting our poles. Of particular concern was a transmission line that feeds a substation in lower Puna, it was the first line to be impacted . There was another transmission line that is a backup but eventually it would also be affected. Once it was out, this would result in no feed to the substation which means no lights to a lot of customers for a long time. Large generators were placed in the substation that might be cutoff but since the road to the substation would be cut off by lava there would be no way to get fuel to the generators, so this was not a long term solution.

Some of the guys over in Hilo came up with a plan to let the lava flow around the poles without damaging them. They worked with the scientist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to come up with a design. The design consisted of large concrete culverts’ that were split and put around the wood transmission poles. The poles were also wrapped with fire resistant material before the culvert was in place. Next wire was placed another 6 feet above the concrete culvert. The whole thing was filled with volcanic cinder, which is light volcanic rock. The cinder was also placed around the whole structure. Tensions were high when the lava approached the poles, the pole protection worked! However 3 days later the pole caught on fire inside the cinder causing the pole to sink down into the lava. The scientist speculated that there was gas created inside the cinder that caught the pole on fire. Preparations were being made to the next poles affected by the lava, this time steel poles would replace the wood poles before the protection was installed. Then a miracle happened, the lava flow just stopped dead in its tracks a couple of days after it hit the first pole. Fortunately we haven’t had to test out and more lava protection as the lava flow changed direction and is currently flowing into the ocean.
Now you know how much different it is here.

I have been here almost 5 years now, it worked out for me. Moving to Hawaii was one of the best decisions I ever made. Now I’m sure you dying to know if the people hated me? I found out just the opposite, due to the cultural mix in Hawaii the people are very accepting, it takes a little while for people to trust you. But I think that is everywhere. I have met some people here who I will be friends with forever. The people here work very hard, I would put the lineman here up against anyone in the country for how hard they work and knowledge of line work. Linemen are basically the same here, they might sound a little different but they all act the same, talk about the same things and do all the same things lineman do. They love to talk about how to make money and OT, just like they do all over the country. One thing that is a given, a lineman is a lineman no matter where you go.
Do I miss SC? Sometimes, but I am glad I did what I did and moved. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there. I know one thing, I have grown a lot. I am a way better person and know a lot more about line work.You have to keep growing and learning new things in life. So if you are getting that itch to step out into a new frontier, go ahead and do it. Life is about taking chances