The Job of a Power Lineman in 2021
When was the last time you had a light bulb go out? Maybe you scrambled for a minute before remembering you had a couple extra lightbulbs underneath the sink.
But what do you do when you screw in a fresh lightbulb and still nothing happens?
Everyone uses electricity but almost nobody thinks about how it gets to their homes. How it powers their TV, laptop, microwave, and basically everything in our day to day lives.
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year a certain profession is our working quietly behind the scenes so we can enjoy the modern comforts of electricity.
Power lineman deal with it all, heights, cold weather and high voltage electricity, all to provide power to big cities and small towns.
What do lineman do?
Power lineman, also known as utility lineman or Power Distribution lineman, work to set up as well as maintain the power lines that direct electricity to homes and businesses.
Professional lineman typically work for utility or energy companies. These employers can range from large energy conglomerates like Berkshire Hathaway Energy to small electric cooperatives in rural America like Lower Valley Energy in Wyoming.
The typical work day for a lineman typically falls into two buckets: maintenance or installation. According the Energy Information Administration the U.S. power grid is made up of nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers.
These powerlines did not appear overnight.
Why are utility lineman needed?
The first known powerline in North America was a 13 mile line from the generating station at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon, and downtown Portland, Oregon, a distance of around 13 miles.
It is incredibly rare for the power that is created at a generated to be used on site. It needs to moved across a region to homes and businesses that can safely and effectively put it to use.
Most electricity in North America is generated by using the steam turbines from the heat of fossil fuels, nuclear, or geothermal. There can be some circumstances that this can be stored via batteries but the overwhelming majority is sent all across the country through powerlines.
The most common first step following generation at a power plant is the current is sent through large transformers to increase the voltage and power it through long distance power lines.
These are the large metal scaffolding power lines you often see by interstate or covering large stretches of land.
Next the power reaches a substation. Substations transform voltage from high to low, or the reverse. These are the metal structures you often see on street corners or various parts of the edge of a town.
After it reaches a substation the electric current is transfer to small power lines where it goes to neighborhoods and business districts. Prior to entering an actual home or business there typically is a small transformer (often the green businesses you see) that make the power safe to use in smaller setting.
While the powerline steps from a generator to the substation and substation to a transformer may seem straight forward these often cover hundreds of miles.
There are over 20,000 power generation station scattered over North America. Each with a complex network of transmission lines stretching over deserts, forests, and cities.
Without lineman constantly installing, upgrading and maintaining these power lines we would not have the modern electric grid we have today.
What is the difference between lineman and electricians?
While both lineman and electricians are both common members of IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), they are both very different professions.
Electricians do not work on any overhead transmission lines or utility lines. While the foundational education is similar for the safety protocol there is a much different knowledge base needed.
Linemen work outdoors, helping to install and maintain power transmission lines, while electricians focus on indoor wiring and electrical distribution systems.
Both lineman and electricians share similar career starting points as OSHA certifications and a CDL is often the most common starting point.
Individuals interested in becoming either linemen or electricians begin “earning-while-they-learn with low-paying apprentice programs before advancing over time to become journeymen and then master linemen or electricians.
What is a typical days work for a lineman?
As mentioned, the typical work day for a lineman typically falls into two buckets: maintenance or installation.
Power line installation requires both the pole or scaffolding setting as well as the line placement. City and municipal crews often dig and place their own poles while large metal scaffolding of cross country transmission lines are often set up by outside construction companies. A digger derrick is the piece of equipment used to dig holes, set poles and work with a variety of materials.
The new line installation for municipal power lines is often done from bucket trucks. Bucket trucks manufactured and upfitted for electric power transmission infrastructure work are able to safely convey transmission linemen up to greater than 200 feet in the air.
A bucket truck is simply a utility truck fitted with a hydraulic pole (boom) that has a man-carrying bucket at its end. The bucket helps keep the worker safe as the boom lifts him up to where he can comfortably use his tools and safely perform his job.
This is noticeably different from ascending a pole with climbers.
The installation of high voltage inter-region transmission lines is most often done via helicopter. With no path to ground, the linemen can safely work on live conductors without taking a costly outage. The productivity of helicopters crews is noticeable. Rather than having to find road or ground access in hill or uneven terrain, an aerial lineman can be dropped in strategic locations.
Helicopters have the strength to pull cables across longer distances and allow for the pole or scaffolding placement to be done farther apart.
How do lineman repair powerlines?
Power line maintenance work occurs year-round and often in remote areas, during bad weather or natural disasters, to repair and restore power in emergencies. It is very common for repair and maintenance operations are performed without cutting off the power which is usually high voltage.
This is known at hotline work.
There are several types of hot line work. Lineman are first responders.
Hot gloves: With this method the lineman is protected by insulating gloves and performs the operation in direct contact with the live parts in the current. Additional insulation may be added to protect the worker from exposure to an object at a different potential that may serve as a second point of contact aside from the gloves.
Hot Stick Method. This method works under the principle that a minimum safe distance or space must be maintained between the worker and the live electric line to prevent the occurrence of electrical arcs. Essential repair tools are attached to the hot stick which is normally made up of insulator material providing safe repair work for linemen. The drawback of this method is it limits the linemen’s dexterity as tools such as pliers and knives are distanced from operating workers themselves.
Bare-hand or Hot Hand Method. This technique may sound especially dangerous (and it is). But by maintaining the same voltage between the power line and the tools and the human body performing the repair work can be safely done.
A specialized suit is worn by linemen doing the repair. Workers are raised to the same voltage as the live line using a platform or helicopter. As the lineman approaches the power line, small arcing is generated with the use of a conducting wand to electrically bond himself to the live line. Now the line worker and the power line are at the same potential so the worker is safe from shock.
What are the most common tasks for lineman repair?
Lineman often must do insulator repair as well as the replacement of old, worn out lines. Sometimes the need for repair can be caused from general wear while others may be due to vandalism or even lightning.
A power line or transmission line insulator is the mounting piece that holds the line in the air but also prevent the current from continuing to the ground. These often need to be replaced.
Another common tasks for lineman performing maintenance work is replacing a transformer. A transformer is a passive component that transfers electrical energy from one electrical circuit to another.
In order to replace a transformer a three rope assembly or pulley system is used to carry down and carry up the old and new transformers. As you are reading, safety is the ultimate priority for any lineman. In order to keep a safe field of work it requires specific professional gear.
What sort of gear do lineman use?
The conductive suits previously mentioned when bare handing are made of stainless steel thread and nomex, a fire retardant.
When on the job lineman wear conductive gloves, pants and jackets. They are tied together to make for one conductive unit.
A hotwire must be covered with a cover-up or a line hose as well as a rubber blanket and cross arm guard. The cross arm guard helps protect against accidental contact. Lineman carry a skinning knife often with a notched blade.
Another common place tool for lineman is pliers.
A good lineman’s pliers has:
Well insulated handles
Bright colors so they don’t get lost
Lineman will also attach a headlamp to their hard hat to increase visibility in the early mornings and late evenings.
Other common tools that lineman use include:
Photo from Border States Supply Chain Solutions
How do lineman climb poles?
Most people don’t think about lineman actually get up and down powerline poles. While more and more line work is being done from bucket trucks there are still plenty of crews that need the traditional skill of ascending with climbers.
Lineman pole climbers are often steel, aluminum or titanium spikes that strap around a lineman’s leg while also sliding underneath his boot. The sharp metal spike is covered with a gaff guard when not in use.
Prior to climbing any wooden pole, lineman check the base to make sure there is no rotting along the base.
As the lineman ascends the pole, he moves up the buck squeeze along with him.
The BuckSqueeze system is designed to provide line personnel fall protection on wood poles from the ground, to the elevated work position, and back to the ground. This technique requires the user to hitchhike up and down the pole utilizing the cross over strap and the paddle tensioner.
Each step up the pole should be strong, hearty step into the center of the pole.
What is the difference between bucket work and climbing work?
Bucket work is not always necessarily safer compared to climbing.
Some line work is inaccessible for a bucket truck to get due to either the terrain or the angle of the land in which a pole is placed.
The recent OSHA mandate to use a fall restricting device has dramatically changed the way linemen work on poles. Wood pole fall restricting devices (WPFRD) have been used for quite some time to provide fall protection by restricting around a pole if a climber slips or cuts out.
However, these devices have fallen short when it comes to meeting and exceeding worker’s comfort, productivity and safety needs.
Working from a bucket truck can sometimes force a lineman to work from an awkward angle or strain as the fixed positioning is not as nimble as climbers.
What is the difference between power lineman and telephone lineman?
It used to be that one of the most common starting paths for a power lineman was starting a career as a telephone lineman.
As a telecommunications lineman, you work to maintain fiber optic cables. These have a much less dangerous electric current.
However due to the ever changing technology that has prioritized cellular networks there are fewer and fewer positions that work on telephone lines. Most modern TV and telephone infrastructure is powered by electric wifi networks that do not requires cables.
What is the different between power lineman and tree trimers?
Another common starting job for lineman is working as a tree trimmer. Tree trimmers gain experience working in similar bucket trucks removing tree branches, often around overhead power lines.
Tree trimmers work to cut way dead or excess branches that may be hanging over buildings, streets or powerlines.
A strong experience as a tree trimmer can lead to a great career as a lineman. Quality work from tree trimming crews can also make our electric grid more resilient to storms are it prevents major outages occurring due to tree and branches falling down.
How do you get a job as a lineman in 2021?
One important thing to understand when beginning your career search as a lineman is the dynamics between union and non-union jobs. Lineman Central is not affiliated with any union or trade organization and we do not formally recommend a lineman to join a union or to avoid joining a union. Our goal is to help aspiring lineman understand potential benefits and drawbacks of each path.
Is the IBEW for Lineman?
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was founded in 1891. Eversince, it has been the major union for both electricians as well as lineman.
Union advocates would say that joining IBEW as a lineman gives you better benefits such as pensions, extended health, paid vacation, holidays, personal holidays, sick pay, overtime premium pay, penalty pay and shift differential. As like any union there is collective bargaining that negotiates local pay rates and benefits.
As a union lineman you sign away your ability to solicit outside work. There will be times when there is no work for you as the demand is dependent on outside utility companies electing to hire a union crew.
Lineman that elect to not pay union dues enjoy their ability to actively join independent work crews whenever they please and select the pay rates that motivate them.
How to get your first job as a lineman?
The first step to becoming a lineman is an apprenticeship.
Lineman Apprenticeship Programs vs Lineman School
A line apprenticeship or power distribution apprenticeship is a long-term training program run by a professional organization. These professional organizations often include local utility districts or joint programs between a local community college and private electric or power company.
Lineman apprenticeships are designed to teach you everything you need to know to be a professional electrician, and it includes a certain number of hours of on-the-job training. On-the-job training is often referred to as "OJT".
In addition to OJT there will be a certain number of hours of classroom instruction. As you explore different lineman programs across the country you will notice that the details are different in certain areas. Many lineman apprenticeships programs across the country take four to five years to complete.
Getting a lineman apprenticeship is not easy. In order to make for a competitive lineman apprenticeship application, many lineman choose to first go to a ‘climb school’ or technical college for pre-apprenticeship training.
How do I find a lineman training program?
When beginning your search for a lineman school near you on Lineman Central you will soon see that they break down into two buckets: community colleges and specialized lineman training schools. The prices and duration of these program will vary greatly and will require your research.
What are the basic requirements to get a lineman job?
More lineman pre-apprenticeship programs are beginning to adopt the same requirements for admittance as most lineman jobs:
18 years of age
High School GED or GED equaivalent
Passing Drug Test
The most common first step for those interested in becoming a lineman is getting your CDL or Commercial Drivers License. Having a CDL will greatly increase your chances of getting accepted into a pre-apprenticeship program as well as apprenticeships across the country.
What does a lineman apprentice do?
When working the four to five year apprentice and the ‘journey’ to journeyman, apprentices are responsible for
gathering and carrying tools
wheeling in equipment
cleaning up the worksite etc..
While this labor is needed it critical, perhaps just as important is it teaches through doing and observation a line crew works and also how dangerous the work is.
Line crews enjoy messing their apprentices but every journeyman was once a ‘grunt’ and many are passionate about giving back to the trade through education.
When do you become a journeyman lineman?
7,000 hours of on the job training as well as in-classroom training and testing is required to become a Journeyman Lineman.
Other types of jobs for experienced journeyman include helicopter work, instructing at pre-apprenticeship schools and being a foreman on a crew.
How much do linemen get paid in 2021?
The national average salary for lineman in the United state is around $59,000.
This however is a broad average that takes into account the pay of apprentices all the way to journeyman doing high paying travel work ($130,000 a year).
Lineman Central has a breakdown of the average wage as well as the 90% percentile wage for lineman in each state.
Nationally the average wage for a utility line apprentice is around 46,000. Most linework is paid hourly and apprentices that are desiring to stack hours and move quickly through their apprenticeship can slightly increase this.
Some of the top paying states for lineman have average salaries over $100,000.
Where to find the best lineman jobs in 2021?
The work hub for Lineman Central gives you updates on the best available for based on your interests.