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Green geometry: harnessing advanced GIS in vegetation management for utilities

October 25, 2023

Vegetation management is a continuous challenge for utility companies. From mountain forests to city streets, ensuring vegetation doesn’t interfere with electrical lines is critical for safety and service continuity.
This is no easy feat, especially if utilities rely on outdated data collection methods that can’t properly track critical data points or produce decisive insights.

That’s why Geographic Information System (GIS) – with its granular ability to describe and collect data along metrics like lines and polygons – elevates vegetation management, especially when integrated into data collection platforms. As we’ll see, GIS-first data collection platforms offer a robust and nuanced approach to vegetation management for utilities, enhancing both safety and efficiency.

The importance of effective vegetation management for utilities

For many reasons, conducting effective vegetation management is non-negotiable for utilities. Trees growing too close to power lines is a serious, omnipresent safety risk that can cause outages and fires. For instance, the California wildfires in 2017 and 2018, which resulted in numerous fatalities, property loss, and a massive economic toll, were linked to vegetation contact with power lines. In fact, electrical power causes around 10% of all wildfires.

Regarding compliance, regulatory bodies dictate clearance standards between vegetation and utility equipment that utilities must meet. Non-compliance can mean costly fines, lawsuits, and a damaged reputation.
Finally, unplanned outages caused by poor vegetation management can cost utilities millions in repairs and lost revenue. Proactively and efficiently managing vegetation can significantly reduce unplanned outages and associated costs.

What is GIS and why does it matter?

GIS has no competition when it comes to data-driven decision-making, especially for tasks like vegetation management.

As a system that captures, analyzes, and presents spatial data in an interactive and visual way, GIS is both a dynamic map and an analytical tool that helps utilities understand the relationship between various elements in vegetation management. For instance, GIS can visualize how seasonal vegetation changes impact power lines, but its real power lies in analyzing interconnected data.

In this regard, lines and polygons in GIS represent powerful tools for utilities. Lines depict connections between points, like power lines or pipelines, helping utility companies visualize their distribution networks. Polygons define areas, such as vegetation zones or areas vulnerable to disasters. When combined with data analysis, this visualization lets utilities predict and proactively tackle emerging challenges, rather than be reactive. For instance, GIS can forecast potential vegetation threats using past vegetation growth data and weather patterns. Indispensable for utilities, GIS is not just about mapping but about harnessing data for proactive, efficient, and safe vegetation management.

Fulcrum app showing polygons for vegetation management for utilities

Adaptability to diverse use cases

Given the complexity of vegetation management, the number of potential solutions to its problems can seem daunting. While each scenario calls for a distinct solution, the granularity offered by features like lines and polygons makes GIS-first data collection platforms adaptable to any number of specific situations for better, data-driven decision-making.

Consider tree fall risk, where trees or large branches falling onto power lines can cause significant disruptions. This is prevalent in many regions, especially those prone to storms or heavy winds. GIS lines and polygons can create detailed risk profiles of certain areas using historical data, weather patterns, and growth rates. From this, utilities can predict which trees or regions pose the biggest risks and immediately take corrective actions.
While any utility company can react to a fallen tree or an overgrown area, those using the nuanced capabilities of GIS lines and polygons can strategize and act proactively so that disruptions are minimized or even completely avoided.

Minimum vegetation clearance

Regulations stipulate that utilities keep a minimum vegetation clearance between their assets and surrounding vegetation to prevent disruptions and damage. Utilities have traditionally relied on approximate measurements or even rough visual assessments to determine this buffer zone. But utilities leveraging GIS lines and polygons can now measure exact distances with pinpoint accuracy. For instance, if a regulation demands a 10-foot clearance around a power line, GIS can help identify those specific areas that fail this standard, ensuring compliance and minimizing accidents.

However, the data is not just a static snapshot. GIS tools can track vegetation growth, alerting utilities to potential clearance violations before they occur. Rather than waiting for the scheduled inspection, utilities can take corrective action and immediately clear overgrowth.

Asset location

Effective vegetation management for utilities demands precise location data of utility assets, whether transmission towers, substations, or individual transformers. However, traditional reliance on physical maps and manual surveys to pinpoint assets is labor-intensive, prone to human error, and fails to provide real-time data.

With GIS lines and polygons, utilities can digitally map their assets and overlay real-time vegetation information. This surfaces data on tree growth near power lines, which GIS-enabled platforms can flag for timely inspection and remediation. As their networks expand, utilities can analyze new areas for growth to ensure assets don’t face immediate threats.

During disaster recovery, GIS can quickly help utilities identify assets affected by wildfires or hurricanes. By comparing before-and-after data, utilities can assess damage and prioritize recovery efforts.
GIS doesn’t just offer a bird’s eye view. It provides a dynamic, precise, and holistic understanding to manage utility assets in the face of evolving vegetation challenges.

Building green geometry with Fulcrum

Levering the power of detailed location information, GIS-enabled data collection software represents a seismic shift in vegetation management. More than just a reactive solution, it is a comprehensive, multi-use toolbox for proactive, data-driven performance. GIS lines and polygons make every step informed, reliable, and efficient – a benefit expanding beyond the office.

With leading, user-friendly GIS-first data collection platforms like Fulcrum, this power is given directly to those in the field. With native lines and polygons accessible directly in-app, empowered field teams can make data-driven decisions on the spot.


Interested in taking your utility’s vegetation management to the next level? Don’t just read about it – see it in action! Check out our short, on-demand demo showcasing Fulcrum’s GIS lines and polygons feature to see how it can revolutionize your approach to vegetation management.