For years, when Oncor sent crews to chop back trees growing too close to power lines, residents responded with anger, tears, and pleas that the company change its ways.
The power line operator's response arrives in two pilot programs being launched in the Lakewood area of East Dallas that so far are winning grudging appreciation from critics.
"We did this at the suggestion of our customers," Oncor spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar said Wednesday. "To be a good neighbor to them, and a trusted adviser, we have to listen to their ideas."
So in the Lakewood trials, Oncor arborists will be available to talk with residents before crews begin pruning trees along distribution lines, often in alleys behind homes, "to explain what they can expect and provide answers to their questions about the pruning that is needed," Oncor said in announcing the program.
Trees are the largest cause of power outages in Oncor's coverage area – 401 cities and towns across a broad stretch of Texas – and pruning helps reduce service interruptions.
The second pilot program allows residents to decide how far from power lines tree limbs can be, so long as it's at least seven feet, Cuellar said.
In recent years, Oncor crews have trimmed branches to provide a 10-foot, 4-inch clear zone around wires. But if homeowners are willing to hire a qualified contractor to maintain a safe distance, and sign a minimum one-year service contract, Oncor will trim trees seven feet from the wires.
"Basically, as upset as people are by the way we trim, the solution is more frequent trimming, so customers will have the option of doing that" at their cost, Cuellar said
Still, working around utility lines is no job for the do-it-yourselfer, she said, so homeowners must sign a contract with a qualified company before Oncor does the initial trim.
Steve Houser, an owner of Arborilogical Services, said he appreciates that Oncor is trying to resolve issues with customers – and he thinks customers will be happier, too.
"Once Oncor trims the trees back to seven feet, we can maintain them," he said. "So this is a big improvement."
If homeowners don't maintain what Oncor calls "the make-safe distance" between wires and trees, the utility will do the trimming itself.
The state Public Utilities Commission leaves tree-trimming decisions to electrical providers, Houser said, which means trimming isn't done as regularly as it should be.
"At one meeting, I asked a homeowners' association president how long it had been since Oncor was in his neighborhood," Houser said. "He said it had been 12 years."
Oklahoma, by contrast, requires utilities to trim trees every four years, a regulation put in place after an ice storm knocked out power for weeks, Houser said.
Raymond Crawford, president of the Kiestwood Historical Homeowners Association, said his neighbors were devastated last summer when Oncor began trimming trees for the first time in a decade.
With the pilot programs just launching, Crawford hasn't read all the particulars.
"But what it sounds like is the first correct step in 'Man vs. Utility Company,' " he said.
"Utility companies never go as far as we want them to, but this is a step in the right direction."
The pilot programs will run through the summer, Oncor's Cuellar said.
In September, the utility will decide whether to extend them across its coverage area.
Michael E. Young wrote a follow-up article on July 12, 2010 entitled "Lakewood Residents Aren't Signing On to Oncor's Tree-Trimming Contract."