Maintenance is Key to Reliability

NLI linemen prepare to install a power pole in snowy woods. Photo by Kristin Mettke
NLI linemen prepare to install a power pole. Photo by Kristin Mettke

Northern Lights Inc. has been around for 85 years. The electric system serving our members is a spread out, complex conglomeration of different ages and types of infrastructure requiring constant attention to keep the system safe and reliable.

Maintenance and replacement work is carefully planned, budgeted and scheduled each year. This work requires balancing our crew’s workdays with their regular duties, such as installing new services, responding to service issues and restoring power outages. NLI supplements our line crews, as needed, with additional contract line crews.

NLI has approximately 1,240 miles of underground power lines, 1,570 miles of overhead power lines and 12 substations that require regular maintenance and checks.
You may have seen NLI linemen working in a snowstorm or windstorm to restore your power. Linemen perform routine maintenance in all weather conditions year-round. The type of maintenance activities depends on the season, but there are no snow or rain days for linemen.

NLI has about 33,600 wood poles on our overhead power line system. The typical lifespan of a western red cedar wood pole is about 50 years in our region. A pole may have a shorter lifespan if it is in a particularly wet area prone to rot, is attacked by woodpeckers, or becomes damaged or compromised by trees or other outside forces.

NLI contracts with a company that specializes in pole testing and inspection to field review a portion of our wood poles. This helps catch many of the problems a wood pole may have ahead of it being replaced for age. We are working on such replacements in the Yaak, Montana, area of our system. About 250 to 300 poles are replaced through normal maintenance each year. Additional poles are replaced in larger upgrade projects.

For underground power lines, the typical lifespan for the cable in our region is 30 to 40 years. These replacements can typically only be done during the summer and fall. For this reason, NLI uses contract help during the busy summer with underground cable replacement projects. During the past 20 years, NLI has replaced more than a million feet of underground cable. Each year, we typically replace about 50,000 feet of underground cable.

Being a cooperative, NLI reinvests revenue into our service area through stable rates and infrastructure or returns it to members through patronage capital.

NLI maintenance programs aim to bring value and reliability to NLI members using a portion of our revenues.

Northern Lights Engineering & Operations Manager Kristin Mettke is an electrical engineer and has worked in the electric utility industry most of her career.