Above is a close-up of a relative rarity in Vancouver: a precast, spun-concrete utility pole. This one is in a Mount Pleasant back alley. It looks virtually brand new but it’s from the 1970s. It bears a maker’s label that explains that it was manufactured by the now-defunct company Spun-Beton of Kamloops, B.C. in 1979.
Béton is French for concrete and the French pretty much invented prefabricated, reinforced concrete beginning in the 1850s. Their engineers and companies spread the technology around the world so most major languages use the French word for concrete.
There’s no substitute for wood?
It appears that the British Columbia forestry industry has been very concerned, at least since the 1980s, about losing whole product categories to competing materials such as plastic, steel, and concrete.
A report put together in 1989 under the auspices of the Forest Resource Development Agreement, titled "Substitution: The Real Threat to B.C.’s Wood Products Sector", raised the alarm where utility poles were concerned.
From page 11:
Substantial inroads into the traditional market for utility poles in wood have been made by spun tubular concrete and sheet steel fabrications. As if to highlight their successful encroachment many new utility poles in new or replacement applications within BC are now in concrete, each bearing a shiny stainless steel advertisement (Spun Beton Products Ltd. of Kamloops). When did utility poles ever carry a message?
Twenty years ago, Spun-Beton and at least one other Kamloops-based company, SCAC, must have been finding substantial buyers for their spun-concrete utility poles to spark such concerns in the forestry industry.
The use of steel poles on all of Vancouver’s main streets highlights the main advantage of steel poles; they can be made to order and in forms that trees—and concrete—can’t do. Otherwise wood is cheaper and seems to last about as long as steel or concrete: 30 to 50 years.
Which explains why Vancouver’s back alleys are almost exclusively full of wooden poles, certainly in the neighbourhoods I frequent: Kitsilano and Fairview. I’m told there are a fair number of late 1980s-vintage concrete poles in the downtown neighbourhood of the West End.
Last year, according to this report, B.C. Hydro replaced seven 1970s-era SCAC concrete poles with new wooden ones in the community of Duncan due to safety concerns over “decaying bolts.”