Believe it or not, there is an internet meme about utility poles. It “went viral” in 2018 because it was both funny and thought-provoking. It was just a thought posted in a Reddit forum, lacking any visuals: “Telephone poles are trees that cleaned up and got a job.” It has received over 40 thousand up-votes, the Reddit equivalent of “likes”.
And what a job they do! To think that people found a way to capitalize on all the time and energy trees have already spent becoming large structures, and then strapped them with man-made energy sources to boot—it’s quite the efficient design. But without coal-tar creosote, these cleaned-up trees would simply rot and return to the soil rather than supply around-the-clock electricity to millions of households.
Here are five ways creosote has been keeping trees—which the post’s ‘Top Commenter’ humorously describes as “sell outs”—working for people for well over a century:
1. The first ever creosote-treated utility poles in the USA connected Washington, DC and Norfolk, VA.
In 1897, the country’s first wooden utility poles were creosote-treated and electrified an approximately 200-mile stretch from Washington, DC, to Norfolk, VA. Installed by the Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph company, this first crop of utility poles was inspected 83 years later and 85 poles were still serviceable.
2. Creosote-treated utility poles often outlive humans.
The average service life across all types of creosote treatments is 73 years, just below the average life expectancy of American citizens. However, a significant share of utility poles last beyond 100 years; the longest recorded service life is an incredible 154 years!
3. Creosote-treated utility poles were pivotal in electrifying the US countryside.
In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s US Rural Electrification Act dramatically expanded the country’s electrical grid, again using creosote-treated poles. While in 1935 only 11% of the American countryside was electrified, after the passage of this monumental New Deal legislation it grew to 25% by 1940 and jumped to 90% by 1950.
4. Creosote-treated utility poles continue serving long past their installation dates.
Creosote was the primary wood preservative used on utility poles until 1955, when pentachlorophenol and waterborne treatments started also being applied to utility poles. Since 1997, approximately 16% of all newly installed wood utility poles have been treated with creosote. Due to the long service life of creosote-treated poles, between 25 and 50 percent of all poles currently in service are creosote-treated.
5. Pentachlorophenol treatment came and went in the market for utility pole preservatives, but creosote has remained.
Creosote was the first preservative to make wooden utility poles possible, and it continues to keep electrical infrastructure across the country resilient. With the exit of pentachlorophenol from the market in 2022, creosote is poised to continue to preserve this natural resource—and the electrical power it supports—for generations to come.