“There’s probably more of a turn across the nation away from wood and toward FRP crossarms than has been seen in the last 20 years,” agrees Jim Bob Wiles, senior manager, Valmont Composite Structures. “I dare say that in 10 years wood will be in lower usage compared to fiberglass.”
As Wiles points out, crossarms have now had over a decade to prove their cost benefit: “FRP crossarms were introduced in 1992, and it takes 20 to 25 years before utilities believe that it really works. That’s where we are now.”
With composite products suddenly becoming mainstream for utilities, long-time FRP crossarm and pole manufacturers are finding the market is filling up with a new competitor — first-time FRP manufacturers. Long used to defending their product against steel and wood, the experienced manufacturers are now educating end users on exactly what makes a reliable product.
“Across the whole composites industry, whenever there’s a market that sees a bubble – and that goes from bathtubs to boats – we get people coming in that don’t do such a good job,” Wiles says. “It muddies the water, and that’s why fiberglass composites, frankly, get a bad name.”
As Fecht points out, when a utility specifies a wood pole, they can go to lots of suppliers and get virtually the same product. “They might have some subtle differences in how they treat them, but those poles all come from the forest,” he says. “But with composite materials, when you ask for that 50-foot Class 1 pole, you can get that from any number of manufacturers who use different manufacturing methods, different raw material inputs, including different resin systems, and you can end up with very different products under the same broader category and a resulting range of performance across many dimensions.”
Fecht works to educate end users on factors that can undermine an FRP pole’s durability, such as insufficient UV protection that could lead to structural deficiencies due to resin loss from fiber blooming. Meanwhile, manufacturers across the board continue to adjust formulas to further strengthen their products. “There’s been a focus now for several years on increasing the reliability,” Troutman says.
The case has already been made that FRP might be the right solution for more jobs than previously imagined. As Fecht puts it, “Ten or 15 years ago we were saying, the pole can do all these great things and utilities were looking at it and looking at the price and saying, ‘Sure, but give us some examples.’ Now with installations on all five continents, we can say, ‘What about this in the Bahamas and this in Scotland and this in Norway and this in California?’”