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How do I stand up a utility pole with no heavy machinery?
August 13, 2010 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I have a 30' utility pole that I need to stand upright in a 6' deep hole. Complicating factor: the location is set back in the woods, so using heavy machinery or vehicles of any kind is not an option.

The power pole is already at the site, laying diagonally across and down somewhat of a slope. The area is thickly forested with small spruce trees. I have at my disposal several lengths of rope, a pulley, a 4-ton come along winch, and a half-dozen friends to help. I can purchase or borrow other equipment as needed. So, can we do this? How can we do this? How can we do this safely?
posted by tr0ubley to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How heavy does machinery have to get before it's too heavy? I've used a (rented) hydraulic auger that was not a lot bigger than a brush mower to drill 3' deep holes.
posted by KathrynT at 10:08 AM on August 13, 2010

Does your budget allow you to hire a rigging company? I'd be concerned about potentially killing one or more of my half-dozen friends- seems like theres a fair amount of strain involved on the various ropes and chains you'd be using.
posted by jenkinsEar at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've done something similar and it was very tricky. We had a bobcat with skilled operator and some chain to hold onto the pole. You do it just like you'd think -- put the end of the pole next to the hole, use the people to get it in the right spot and use the bobcat to pull it back. It slides into the hole and the people keep it in place while the bobcat steadies and pulls the bulk of the load.

So, you can't do a bobcat? At a minimum, you need to set up some scaffolding which is rentable and portable. This is both to get people up near the middle/top and to steady the pole against when it's vertical so that you can pour cement -- don't forget your levels!

But, let me tell you, as the local safety nazi on my building projects, this is not without danger. If you lose control of the pole, it's heavy and incredibly unweildy -- it could crush a shoulder, foot, leg, bonk someone on the side of the head. People should wear hardhats, gloves and use clear communication every step of the way.

You sure you can't hire someone to do this? There are people with machines and tools who do these things for a living, promptly and correctly. This bobcat we used was pretty small and very maneuverable. Something like that could probably get where you need it to go. Having the dozen people on hand and some scaffolding would undoubtedly be helpful for the whole operation.
posted by amanda at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2010

I should have said the hole is already dug, so no need for an auger. It is placing the pole in the vertical position with which I am having trouble.
posted by tr0ubley at 10:20 AM on August 13, 2010

The area is thickly forested with small spruce trees.

No big heavy trees nearby? You could attach it with a big, fat lag bolt somewhere in the top 1/3 of the poll to a nearby tree with rope, put the base in the hole, have people lift it about 5' off the ground and then start winching it using a nearby (very sturdy) tree for leverage. You'd still need scaffolding because you'd need to stop the pole once you get it vertical. Never let anyone stand behind it in the drop zone should a rope break or the attachment come loose and make sure that everyone knows where they are standing and where their exit route would be.
posted by amanda at 10:23 AM on August 13, 2010

Oh, I misunderstood. Sorry. Next time I will make sure to drink ALL my tea before answering AskMes.
posted by KathrynT at 10:24 AM on August 13, 2010

hmm, tough nut to crack without pictures. this is the time when it would be good to have a logger friend. setting chokers to logs (in this case your utility pole) can be very dangerous if not done absolutely perfectly. my great great grandfather was crushed and killed by a log that broke lose from it's choker and he was a master logger and forest ranger. you'll want to have a really good way to anchor whatever setup you decide to go with, and the small spruce don't sound too promising...

might be worth it to contact a small logging outfit and pay to have them do it. Somebody small time with a one tonged truck to pick up the pole would be just fine. If your hole is already dug, they should be able to help you do this in just a couple of hours (concrete in the hole after the pole is placed right???) otherwise i think there's a high chance of someone getting seriously hurt or killed.
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 10:26 AM on August 13, 2010

You know that guy who made his own homemade Stonehenge? He moved it all into place with some very simple items. I would take some inspiration from his work.

For one, I would have a few car jacks handy and a few cinderblocks. Lift up the far end with some jacks, prop up with cinderblocks. Move the jack a bit closer, lift more, more propping. Remove cinderblocks from farther off.

Multiple ropes for control of the log, so it does not want to go anywhere. I'd use rope, rather than cable/wire, personally. Anchor from a "collar" around the pole to many small trees. Lots of winching.

Be verbal. Always have at least one person whose eyes are on the pole. When people start winching or jacking or shoving, everyone call out what is going on. Use water — mud is slippery, so slide the pole into the hole for the last stretch that way. Aaaaand that sounded dirty.
posted by adipocere at 10:32 AM on August 13, 2010

These pictures: raising a totem pole might give some ideas (remember cedar is lighter than most woods). Also look into using an "angled hole" to let the butt slide in easier, then it doesn't have to become fully vertical before having some lateral stability.
posted by Rumple at 10:42 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

One note I came across is digging a trench, especially near the hole, for sliding the pole about and making sure it doesn't "escape."
posted by adipocere at 10:43 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm no engineer, but a 6' hole for a 30' pole sounds wayyy too shallow to me. With fenceposts, the rule of thumb is the depth of the hole is one third of the length of the pole.

To get the pole into the hole, I would place two long poles, lashed together in an X, under the utility pole once its butt is at the mouth of the hole. Make sure the ends nearest the hole are well dug into the earth. Attach ropes to the far ends, and pull from the other side of the hole. (Someone may need to lift the far ends at the beginning until the leverage picks up.) That way assuming the pole starts descending into the hole as soon as it starts to tilt up, there's not much danger to anyone even if things go wonky mid-pull, because no one is under the pole. The dicey part would be near the end of the pull, when the pole is nearly upright, but by then you should have a good idea of whether it's descended sufficiently into the hole that it's going to stop at the vertical or keep on coming to flatten you.

You'll want the near ends of the X to be near but not at a line drawn through the hole perpendicular to the pole. You'll want them set fairly far apart for stability. And you'll want the center of the X to hit about 2/3 of the way up the pole at the beginning.
posted by bricoleur at 10:56 AM on August 13, 2010

If motorized vehicles are completely out of the question, you can accomplish this with lots and lots of rope (preferably 40 ft or longer per person to keep people out of the danger zone) and lots of people, eight strong people at the very least. I would first create a long, sloped trench leading to the hole and "roll" the pole into that trench, so that when pulled the bottom will catch, anchoring it firmly. You can backfill that afterward. Do you have a "labor pool" where you can pick up day laborers? That might help with a lot of the muscle power.

But yeah, heavy equipment if you can... I'm sure you can get a large excavator into that spot. It's amazing the equipment that utility companies have onhand to do this... I've seen them drill a hole and place a pole in it in just 2 minutes, all from the back of a huge truck.
posted by crapmatic at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2010

I like the idea of looking at traditional methods like the totem pole techniques.

Go to your local highland games and hire the caber toss champion?
posted by aimedwander at 11:01 AM on August 13, 2010

Hmm. I retract my advice on lifting the pole. I'm picturing one of the legs of the X coming unstuck and shooting back at one of the participants. So, yeah, never mind that.

I stand by my advice on the depth of the hole, though, unless the hole is dug in solid granite.
posted by bricoleur at 11:05 AM on August 13, 2010

Try a gin pole. You can see them in action in some of the pics in the totem pole link above. Here's a simplified diagram.
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 11:37 AM on August 13, 2010

This is quite doable with plenty of rope, some poles, some blocks, a come-along, a few strong people, etc.. Until the early 1900s people had to do this a lot, so it's not hard to find instructions. But, as amanda says, this is the kind of thing where even a minor mistake or a moment's miscommunication can kill someone or take off a limb. I'd really recommend hiring someone with experience doing this to come and oversee the process.
posted by hattifattener at 11:58 AM on August 13, 2010

Yep, a gin pole (or two) and an angled trench to the hole should solve this problem easily.

(for more research - the problem is akin to raising a sailboat mast all alone, albeit a very heavy mast :). The same principles of leverage apply.

A setup something like this would probably work, assuming you used 4x4s or boards of equal strength (and of course attached the boards not at the base of the pole but up just high enough that they are at ground level with the pole vertical - hence the need for the angled trench.)
posted by namewithoutwords at 12:07 PM on August 13, 2010

I stand by my advice on the depth of the hole, though, unless the hole is dug in solid granite.

FWIW, this site claims the hole depth need only be 1/6th the length of the pole. (link also gives another description of how to raise the pole.)
posted by namewithoutwords at 12:24 PM on August 13, 2010

I've seen various reenactments of raising stone obelisks and there are some good ideas there. I wonder if it would work to dig a sloped trench barely wider than the pole into the hole, such that the trench length is more than 15 feet (half the length of the pole). Roll the pole into the trench and let it/help it slide to the bottom. The bottom of the trench is the bottom of the hole.

Lift it up from the top end and put a 4x4 beam across the trench under the pole, then set it down. Doing this repeatedly will raise the pole up to greater incremental angles until the pole is vertical. Plumb, fill in with dirt. The biggest worry in this is that when you raise it, you go too far and the pole will fall on the far side. You should be able to avoid this with brake lines tied to the top of the pole.
posted by plinth at 12:30 PM on August 13, 2010

adipocere writes "For one, I would have a few car jacks handy and a few cinderblocks. Lift up the far end with some jacks, prop up with cinderblocks. Move the jack a bit closer, lift more, more propping. Remove cinderblocks from farther off."

Cinder blocks should not be used for blocking; shock loads can break them.

How steep is the slope the hole is in?
Do you have levelish ground in at least one direction?
How far into the woods from the nearest road access is the pole site? A good size tow/recovery truck will often have 100-200 feet of line on their spool which can be extended with additional cable or chain.
posted by Mitheral at 12:32 PM on August 13, 2010

trench it so that it will indeed SLIDE into the hole, and not DROP into the hole.

2 ratchet straps in a 45 degree V pulling the pole anchored with trees. this is to pull it up.

2 ropes in a 45 degree V anchored to trees using the Pythagorean theorem to determine the length so that they will stop the pole at vertical (on the way up somne friends should be using these to stabilizie horizontal movement, but there shouldn't be much with the 2 ratchet straps pulling in a 30 degree V)

i drew this hastily to explain


BE SAFE. no flip flops... work boots, use hard hats etc. have ONE PERSON be the guy who says when to start, when to stop, and what to do, there will NO negotiation once you start... no brilliant ideas... just good little soldiers.... and this is the most important: the phrase "heads up" should be instructed to people as URGENT! when that phrase is shouted, drop everything, turn and run as fast as possible. as a longtime rigger, when someone throws me a beer or something today and says "heads up" i usually still have the same reaction at least for a second... in other words there needs to be an "oh sh*t" phrase that everyone is clear on.

good luck. post a pic when its up!
posted by chasles at 1:54 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

There was a video I saw a while back about a guy in his backyard recreating Stonehenge. By himself, with no mechanical equipment, he could stand up and move around giant, several thousand tonne stone blocks. I'm at work so can't find the video, but his basic method for standing a block up in a hole was to balance it on a wide, central pivot point (for your pole, this may be something as big as a table. Then weigh down one side of the pole until it has lifted off the far end of the table just enough to slide a 2x4 underneath it. Repeat for the other side, and you've raised it two inches. If you do this, you should use blocks that prevent the pole from rolling sideways.

Essentially, you carry on with this technique until the pole is a sufficient distance from the ground (you're doing all this right next to the hole, by the way). Then weigh down the side of the pole over the whole, and it will slowly tilt off your little tower and into the hole.

I'll have a look tonight and see if I can find the video.
posted by twirlypen at 3:23 PM on August 13, 2010

I recommend the book Moving Heavy Things.
posted by mearls at 5:30 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for the advice and insight. We might consult with a professional before proceeding. But I will mark a best answer based on what method we eventually use, and post some pictures of the process and end result.
posted by tr0ubley at 6:18 PM on August 13, 2010

namewithoutwords: Respectfully, I still stand by my advice on the depth of the hole. For one thing, that article does admit that "other authorities" (citation needed) stipulate one third the length of the pole. For another, no citation is given for the claim that "utility company standards call for 1/6th of the pole to be buried." I tried a little Googling on that and found no corroboration. I suspect that utility companies differ in their recommendations, and that the recommendations themselves are at least somewhat dependent on the soil composition at the site. Lastly, I have two utility poles of approximately that size on my property, both presumably installed by the local utility company. Both of them list a good 5 degrees from the vertical. Doesn't sound like much, but it's quite noticeable.

Also, the geometry of how the wire is to be strung has to be considered. If the pole is directly in line with the two end points, there won't be nearly as much strain on its attitude as there will be if the wire has to dogleg to the pole.
posted by bricoleur at 6:21 AM on August 14, 2010

thanks to everyone for the encouragement, advice, and well-reasoned warnings. we got the pole up. at first, we tried the gin-pole idea, lashing together two long black spruce poles and hanging a pulley from where they crossed. the plan was to raise the angle of the gin pole as we raised the power pole so the forces would push down the legs of the gin pole rather than at an angle to them. it still seems like this should have worked, or could have worked, but we gave up on it after the gin pole tipped over sidewise at the start of a trial run. the ground was uneven, and we had not secured the pole laterally.
for the second attempt, we had some rough-cut 4x4s on hand for a gin pole, lots of 2x4s for scissor braces (two 2x4s bolted together once about ¾ of the way up), and several willing helpers. we dug a narrow trench that angled into the hole, deep enough so the butt of the pole could not slide out. we rigged up lines to each side of the pole, then ran those lines through pulleys off to each side and back to a single spot, where one person was able to control both lines to keep the pole from tipping sidewise. we also ran a line forward and aft of the pole to help raise the pole if need be and to keep it from tipping too far. then we used man power. three of us held and lifted the pole, while a fourth used the scissor brace to push higher up on the pole than we could reach with our arms alone. the scissor brace held the pole up when we took a break a third of the way through, but in the end a single effort to get vertical seemed to work just fine. the four of us were able to raise the 25’ pole with a reasonable amount of safety and control just by pushing from underneath. the woman holding the lateral lines didn’t have to struggle at all. surely there’s a range from safe to unsafe, and it seems possible that something could have gone wrong here. but I think with enough people, enough of a hole and trench, some 2x4s, ropes and pulleys, and good communication, a pole like this can be raised relatively safely with people power alone.
posted by tr0ubley at 2:56 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

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