Power & Utility Lines

Parent Q&A

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  • Hi BPN,

    We recently bought a corner home in the Berkeley flats with a fairly large tree on our part of the sidewalk. However, we noticed that there are electric lines going through said tree which also cuts though/above our backyard to our neighbor’s small apartment building behind their home. 

    We really like the shade provided by the tree and are loathe to cut it back but what if it topples the electric wires on a windy day? Who is responsible? Do we suggest to out neighbor that they pay to cut back the tree? Are we supposed to go in and partially pay (while not ideal, better than paying for PG&E to come out in an emergency?) or how do these situations work? Thanks in advance for your advice.

    You need to apply for a permit with the City of Berkeley: https://berkeleyca.gov/city-services/streets-sidewalks-sewers-and-utili…

    From a fire risk standpoint, the voltage of that wire is likely so incredibly low that there’s no risk. Also, I believe PG&E does not charge anything to come out, emergency or not. You could ask PG&E if they can come check the wires proactively if you’re concerned (though they may be able to tell you over the phone that there’s nothing to worry about).

    PG&E sends workers around periodically to trim trees that are close to their lines. The cable companies do the same. If a line collapses call the fire department and PG&E. We had to do this a couple of times, though now they've put up new poles, so hopefully the problem has been solved. The Berkeley Fire Department is very responsive to downed wires.

    Sometimes the PG&E tree trimming seems excessive, and we've noticed that the work they did this past year radically reduced shade and has caused our house to be much hotter. The trees on our street look like Bonsai trees now.

    For better or worse, PG&E will monitor and cut the tree as needed to stay clear of the lines. And yes, you are responsible for cutting it (or letting PG&E do it) if it's your tree, regardless of whose lines are passing through--often for front yard trees, the lines are just community lines, and not specific to the house whose yard the tree sits in.

  • Has anyone converted a house with two electric meters into a single meter? Could you tell me about the process, permits, cost, and general headache if you've done this? The house is a former duplex (now single family home) and the second kitchen was removed, but the house remains on two meters. How big of a pain is this going to be?

    I'm not sure if it makes a difference, but this is Walnut Creek.

    Thank you!

    My house in Berkeley has two electric meters.  (Duplex converted to a single family.)  There is no need to pay to have the second meter removed, we still have two.  PG&E just bills you as meter aggregation.  There are advantages in having two meters.  If you have an electric car or plan on getting one you get get on PG&E’s EV-B rate plan.  If you do, your PG&E electric bill will drop by 30% or more.  (Ours is 40% less.)  Even if you don’t have an EV car PG&E bills on a tired system.  The more electricity you use per meter the more you pay.  Having two meters allows you to buy twice as much electricity at the lower rate.  If you ever plan it install solar having two meters allows you to be on a lower priced rate plan.  In May PG&E is forcing everyone to change rate plans.  Your bill could almost double if you switch to one meter when the rates change in May. 

    If you don’t care about the price of electricity switching to one meter is very easy provided your circuit breaker panel can accommodate the extra electrical load.  A good electrician should be able to make the switch in less than a day.  Cost for everything, parts, labor and permits should not be more than $500 - $ 700 if you current electrical panel can handle the additional load.  If it can’t handle the additional load you are looking at well over a thousand if not three or four.  Our house has an upgraded electrical system.  For us to convert from two meters to one would take about an hour, no more than two.

    Hope this helps. 

  • Hi any advice on looking at houses near high voltage power lines. There’s A large one that runs over homes in piedmont and Oakland. Does anyone know anything about these? Health risks Seem controversial when I read about them. There’s a house we really like that’s near one tower (The house is not directly under The lines but the house next door To it is). I don’t want to risk my kids health. Any advice 

    I grew up under some of these. They're harmless.

    My undergraduate degree was also in physics. So I repeat. They're harmless.

    Hope you get and enjoy the home.

    I'm not an expert on power lines, but I can tell you a couple of things that may help you decision.  1.  As I hope you are aware there is a WHOLE lot of click-bait and otherwise unreliably motivated "information" out there about a great many things.  Vaccines do not cause autism.  Jet planes are not spreading chemtrails, and SARS-COV-2 is not a bio-weapon that escaped from a secret lab.  Yet people still believe those things because science can only establish that science has not found any evidence to support them.  It can't conclusively prove a negative, allowing conspiracy theories and misinformation to flourish.  Hopefully you will bear that in mind in making your decision.  2. I can tell you one thing about them from personal knowledge.  For a number of years I worked for a law firm that negotiated leases for cellular telephone cell sites.  Cell sites transmit at 5-10 watts, and can receive transmissions from your phone at long distances that are sent at only 0.6 watts (standard transmitting power of cell phones; compare to my marine band VHF walkie-talkie which transmits at 6 watts).  We were perfectly happy to lease space on high power electrical line towers because they did not in any way interfere with our clients' cellular equipment.  To put it another way, your cellphone in your house next to a power line can penetrate what little radiation leaks from the power lines just fine at only 0.6 watts transmitting power.  So even if the electromagnetic leakage from high power lines was of a kind that is harmful (and no credible study has shown that it is) it is too little even to interfere with your little iPhone reaching a cell site mounted on the same tower as the power line, from up to several miles away.

    Hope that helps.

    There are no known risks from living near, under or around high voltage powerlines  There is NO "credible" research which indicates high voltage power lines, your electric meter, microwave ovens or cell phones and cell phone towers cause any health problems.  I am a college professor and have researched this for over 20 years.  All of the evidence and books which says high voltage power lines cause heath issues have used fake data, manipulated data or have been written by people who have no education or training in this subject mater and are trying to sell a book (make some money) or make a name for themselves.  Or are conspiracy theorists.

    IF high voltage powerlines cause heath issues wouldn't you expect all of the power company employees who work around these high voltage lines everyday would have health issues at a higher rate than everyone else?  Turns out they don't.  But the conspiracy theorists will say they do and not provide any evidence show they do.  There are a couple of schools in the Bay Area which are very close to the high voltage powerlines.  Over the 60 - 70 years kids have been going attending these schools if there was a heath issue don't you think we would have seen it by now? 

    When our kids were you we were looking at a two houses near and under those high voltage lines.  Only reason we didn't buy is because the electrical towers were ugly.  Heath wise, I would not have an issue having my kids live under one.

    If you like the house buy it.  But realize that when you go to sell this urban myth about high voltage power lines causing heath issues will detract from the sales price of the house and make it a bit harder to sell.  But if you are going to stay for 10-20 years I would not worry.  There are many houses in Orinda, Lafayette and Walnut Creek which have high voltage power line and towers over and near houses.

    Hope this helps.  

    There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that power lines pose any risk at all unless they are poorly maintained and start a fire, so I wouldn't worry.

    I am a scientist and have done extensive literature review on this topic due to my kid's sensitivity to it.  I can tell you that the impact of electro-magnetic field (EMF) on human health is unknown, because there is no well-controlled study.  It is virtually impossible and unethical to perform the study, because you cannot place large numbers of people under high EMF day after day and follow every aspects of their health (brain function, mental depression, cardiovascular functions, autoimmunity, etc).  It is further complicated by the fact that different individuals are likely to have different levels of sensitivity to EMF radiation.  What does not matter to one person may cause problems to another.  Not only that there is no proper study on this topic, the world does not even have a threshold of safety for EMF radiation.  Currently WHO has a task force to evaluate all existing literature on EMF and its health effects and try to come up with a universal limit on EMF.  There are papers reporting the harmful effects of EMF on mental health, autoimmunity and cancer risk, but the population of the studies was not large enough to draw a convincing conclusion.  Of course, EMF decreases rapidly with distance.  So it really depends on how far away the house is under the power line and how strong the power line is (110K voltage main lines are worse than the 30K lines obviously).  If you have another choice, I would not touch the ones under the high power line. 

    The ones near us in El Cerrito emit a not insignificant buzzing noise if you're close enough to them. It drives me nuts when I walk past them. I have no idea if nearby houses are close enough to hear it but that would be my only warning. 

    My husband's boss is a Ph.D. biologist.  She and her husband (also a Ph.D.) bought a house in Lafayette more than 20 years ago under a high voltage power line.  Before making an offer, they took a Gauss meter to the house to measure electromagnetic waves.  They were quite satisfied that there was no hazard, bought the house at a discount because other sellers were worried, and have been happy and healthy residents of Lafayette ever since.  They raised two kids to adulthood in that house.

    We live almost right under HV power lines in El Cerrito, and, as BethH said, they buzz (particularly when it's foggy), but I am a scientist and not remotely concerned about any putative health effects. We have 3 kids who've lived under them for a total of 24 years, and they're weird, but I'm quite sure it's not because of the power lines!

    a few thoughts.  First - the Gauss meter is an interesting point of reference, but in my understanding biologists still are a long way from fully understanding the effects of electric and magnetic field strength on living beings.  If you consider that birds are so sensitive they can detect the earth's magnetic field as a navigation aid ... that's a pretty weak magnetic field.

    Physics tells us that field strength decreases with the square of the distance between the source and the measurement point - so being the next house over is probably a lot better than being the one directly underneath it.

    That said, I have worked around all sorts of fields (cell sites, broadcast transmitters, indoor cell repeater systems, laboratory instrumentation) in my career, and my gut level intuition is to avoid exposure whenever possible ... because we just don't know about such field's long term effects on DNA, cellular metabolism, or the mysterious mechanisms of the brain.

    Over the decades, I have routinely advised clients with penthouse offices to get the heck out when its discovered that 5' over their heads, the landlord has rented out roof space to a cellular carrier or intermediary tower real estate broker ... no one is coming around regularly to measure field strength or leakage in their workspaces regularly, and if there was a problem ... they are the lab rat.

    Does any of that help?

  • Dear BPN;

    I am wondering what it takes, how ones goes about initiating and starting the process of getting cables and wires strung in front of one's house put underground. Has anyone done this? What is the cost? Who do you need to contact? Who actually does the work? AT& T just put up fiberoptic cables, on top of the Comcast cables and electric wires so its hugely thick and an eyesore. (We don't have more than one water pipe to our house, why do we need all these competing cable sources?) I greatly appreciate any information! Thank you!

    There used to be a city program.  I believe there has been a moratorium on it for some years now.  It may still be possible for an area to make it happen, but I believe that EVERYONE in the designated area has to agree and YOU pay for it.  Good luck with that.

    Anyone with better information please feel free to correct me. 

    Utility under grounding is a city matter, so it depends upon where you live. Here in Berkeley a few neighborhoods got under grounding and one of those neighborhoods was that of a city council person.  In some cities their is a petition process requiring the agreement of a certain number of the owners, and the agreement for a special assessment or Mello-Roos parcel tax. contact your city officials. It is lovely not to see all those poles and wires. Very classy. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews


  • Looking for company to underground utility wires in Berkeley
  • Power line hazard?

    Looking for company to underground utility wires in Berkeley

    March 2013

    Hi, I looked in the BPN archives and saw nothing related to undergrounding power lines from the street to a private house. We live in North Berkeley and between the large street trees, trees in the yards and the small lots, our neighbor's power lines (phone, cable, etc.) from the phone pole on the street rub directly against the side of our house. On her end, the power pole is tangled in a large tree and she regularly loses phone service. These lines should be undergrounded. I wanted to look into the cost of undergrounding utility lines from the street to private homes. Who do you call? Which city agencies or which companies do this sort of thing? If you have knowledge of the process, please share. Thanks, Mollie

    when our street was undergrounded, gill's electric did the work. anon

    Power line hazard?

    Sept 2009

    We live in a corner lot home in Alameda that is a few feet from several power distribution lines (the wooden poles are in front of and on the side of our house.) I never really thought about them as hazards since I had always heard that the evidence linking power lines and cancer was very weak. Recently, however, I have read a couple of reports (one from the CA Dept of Health) that indicate that a review of all the studies reveals an overall trend that indicates that there might be a risk, particularly for young children. I believe the term used was that there is a ''suspected'' link (rather than the more conclusive term ''probable'' link) between power line/EMF exposure and cancer.

    I saw online that there is a company that will test your home for EMF radiation. However this company also sells services to reduce radiation, so I am a bit skeptical that we can trust them to give an unbiased advice on what we should do.

    How have BPNers dealt with this issue? Should we just not worry about it? There seem to be so many cancer warnings out there, it is hard to know which to focus on, and which to not worry about!

    Appreciate your advice!


    This is a big scam that began years ago by some doctor who was trying to sell a book. The studies he cited were all bogus as have all subsequent studies. If EMF from power lines were dangerous (caused cancer, diseases and shortened life) then the people who work in power plants (where the EMF is much higher) would have high rates of these diseases. Studies have shown they don't.

    The EMF also makes for a good "care"news story too. Look at the words the CA Dept of health uses, "indicates there might be a risk. Indicates is now where near cause and effect.

    You can hire a company to test for EMF and I assure you they will find high levels of EMF in your house. Some of it is natural and other man made. Your house sits on one of the largest EMF fields, the earth, which is natural. The magnetic filed around the earth protects us from another natural source of EMF which is the sun. Without the earth's EMF field protecting us, we wouldn't be here.

    As for man made, everyone in the Bay Area is being bombarded with EMF. Sources are radio, TV broadcast, (Ch 2 is in your area and now that there are HD is 4 times stronger) Oakland Airports radar system (right in your backyard) Microwave links for communications as well as power line. In your house sources are cordless phones, cell phones, computer wireless networks, hair dryer and TVs. There is no place on earth where you can live to avoid being exposed to EMF.

    If you are still concerned about EMF then you should not fly. If you fly from SF to NY you are exposed to more EMF in that one flight then having several chest x-rays.

    Don't fall for this junk science. -

    The evidence regarding the effects of EMF on health is accumulating, but at this point it remains suspected and it's difficult to make the link between and individual's exposure and health effects that might result. You could take a precautionary approach and reduce exposures, if you can do so in a reasonable way. Not living near power lines would be nice, but perhaps that is not an option. Don't waste your money on hiring this firm. Having EMF measured is not likely to be helpful, as there are no health standards. Undergrounding the lines will reduce exposure (but is expensive and the city will have to agree). I'm not sure what else the firm proposes to do to reduce your exposures. EMF does drop greatly with distance away from the source. EMF is emitted from the outlets in your home and from electronic equipment you use (although this is a minor source). Cell phones also may result in EMF exposure--you can reduce use (especially among children), hold the phone away from your head by using an earpiece (bluetooth may not reduce exposures as much), and keep the cell phone away from your body as much as possible. environmental public health professional

    Some facts: The emf field is proportional to current not voltage. The thicker the wire the higher the current it can potentially carry.

    The emf field drops off with the square of the distance. So 10 amps in a cord to a heater two feet from you is like 1,000 amps in a wire 20 feet from you. I seriously doubt there is 1,000 amps in a residential line but the Alameda Municipal Power Agency should be able to tell you the maximum and maybe the typical current in the lines on your streets. The typical current will be much less than the maximum capacity.

    Some opinion:

    People have been living with 10-20 amps flowing near them in houses for a century without obvious effect. On the other hand I would never choose to be a linesman working everyday near high current electrified transmission lines.

    You are right to be skeptical of people offering to protect you from emf. My impression it would be hard to do without living in a grounded house made of metal.

    Another fact: Driving a car is far more dangerous than emf.

    See NCI fact sheet: Magnetic Field Exposure and Cancer: Questions and Answers. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/magnetic- fields

    This power line thing is non-sense. you get much higher emf exposure to your electric razor for instance becasue it is so close to you. And that's not a worry either. No cancer link. sean

    If you are seriously concerned about those powerlines, you may want to consider not using electricity at all. Anything electric has an electric magnetic field. So your cell phone, microwave, tv, dvd player, hair dryer, shaver, kitchen appliances etc..... anon