Tag Archives: penta

Alaska Pole Barn with Actual Poles

Alaska Pole Barn With Actual Poles

Reader DOUGLAS in FAIRBANKS writes:

Hello, I’m planning to build a 40×36 pole barn using 12 surplus power poles (3 rows of 4 poles) that are in good condition. They will be placed 6′ deep by a digger truck as a normal utility pole would be. The ground is well drained and fractured rock is only 3-4 feet down. I’m curious what attachments are available for connecting poles to rafters? Thanks much, Frozen in Fairbanks”

Mike the Pole Barn Guru says:

In my humble opinion, power poles (even brand new) are going to prove nothing but problematic to work with. 

Trying to save a few bucks on your pole barn and don’t care about longevity or ease of use, then used utility poles may be an answer. Most people, who are going to invest an average of $50,000 into a new building, prefer to have a structurally reliable design solution however.

As discussed in my previous articles, most utility poles are replaced due to decay issues. Oil based preservative treatments (like penta or creosote) are affected by time and gravity. As treatment chemicals wear thin at ground line, decay begins to occur and utility companies replace the poles. In an attempt to reuse poles, portions at the former ground line (decay zone) should be cut off and properly disposed of in a landfill. This leaves the pole remainder being portion with little or no treatment chemical remaining.

If one of these poles happens to rot in a new pole barn, the cost to replace it will be more than what was initially “saved”, even if poles were free.

Building a pole building which requires a structural plan review? (In my humble opinion, all plans should be so reviewed.) Building officials are probably not going to “buy in” to use of used utility poles. Why? There is no way to determine if what remains will meet with minimum code requirements for preservative treatment.

Fully enclosed building? Many will find the odors of oil based chemicals to be an issue, not to mention having chemicals continuing to leech from posts. Even CCA (Chromated Copper Arsenate) treated poles can no longer be used in residential applications due to EPA (Environment Protection Agency) regulations.

Ease of use – used utility poles are round and tapered. In order to place them in a building so dimensional lumber can be properly affixed, pole sides where lumber or trusses will be attached to, are best cut to a flat surface. Once you have flat surfaces, you can utilize connectors just like are done in buildings with square (or rectangular) sawn columns.

Besides complexity, cutting to flat also adds issues of hazardous chemicals being placed into air, both as fumes and in sawdust. Dealing with taper, means poles will not be set plumb, in relation to actual pole center, but will instead be leaning outward, so the outside face is vertical. This may be less of an issue, unless an interior finish of some sort is to be added at a later date.

Many utility companies have used poles laying around – they are not easily disposed of, as they should be taken to a landfill and buried as hazardous waste. This makes utilities all too happy to either give them away, or to sell them at what seems to be a bargain.

PCP Treated Poles

I first became involved in the post frame (pole) building industry over three decades ago, in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. At the time, many of the region’s pole barn builders were buying the lumber for the pole buildings they were selling to consumers from Withers Lumber in Brooks, Oregon.

The “special” thing about this particular lumber yard is they maintained a tremendous inventory of timbers (4×6, 6×6, etc.) which were treated with a product called pentachlorophenol, or “penta”.

First produced in the 1930’s, penta (aka PCP) is used as a pesticide and also as a disinfectant. PCP is produced by the chlorination of phenol in the presence of a catalyst such as anhydrous aluminum or ferric chloride at temperatures approaching 200 degrees Celsius. Phenol (also known as carbolic acid) was first extracted from coal tar, but today is produced on a large scale using a series of processes which begin with crude oil. Phenol requires careful handling due to its propensity to cause burns.

As a wood preserving agent, raw wood (poles or timbers) are placed in a treating tube, where they are immersed in PCP and subjected to pressure – forcing the chemical into the wood. Utility poles, treated with PCP, have an approximate useable lifespan of 35 years.

Short-term exposure to large amounts of PCP can cause harmful effects on the liver, kidneys, blood, lungs, nervous system, immune system, and gastrointestinal tract. Elevated temperature, profuse sweating, uncoordinated movement, muscle twitching, and coma are additional side effects.

Contact with PCP (particularly in the form of vapor) can irritate the skin, eyes, and mouth. Long-term exposure to low levels such as those which occur in the workplace can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. Finally, exposure to PCP is also associated with carcinogenic, renal, and neurological effects. The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) classifies PCP in group B2 (probable human carcinogen).

The pole builders (as well as the lumber yards) who were espousing how wonderful penta treated posts were, exposed themselves and their employees to PCP by direct skin contact.

Since the early 1980s, the purchase and use of PCP in the U.S has not been available to the general public. Nowadays most of the PCP used in the U.S is restricted to the treatment of utility poles and railroad ties. In the United States, any drinking water supply with a PCP concentration exceeding one part per billion must be notified by the water supplier to the public. Disposal of PCP and PCP contaminated substances are regulated as hazardous wastes.

This, in itself, is plenty of reason why I would never, ever consider the use of a used penta treated utility pole in any portion of a pole barn.