Ugly Solutions Need Love Too

Phil Hollenback

First, consider this picture:

That looks pretty horrible, right? It gets even better: PG&E did this on purpose when they replaced the power pole!

When I first noticed this hanging extra piece of pole, I made fun of it. I'm sure many of you would do the same. That looks like an incredibly horrible, sloppy job.

But then I got to thinking. What problem was PG&E trying to solve? I thought back to when they replaced that pole. It actually took two attempts. The first attempt at replacing the pole resulted in disaster - the workers hit the underground water main and flooded the street. I can only assume that the water main was buried directly in front of the old pole.

PG&E gave up that day and put the old pole back. Then, they came back again a few weeks later and replaced the pole again, leading to the curious setup you see in the picture above, with the hanging piece of the old pole still in place.

Now if you know the story about the broken water main, this whole thing starts to make more sense. PG&E couldn't put the new pole in exactly the same location as the old one, because that would be sitting right on top of the water main. That could lead to damaging the pipe again in the future, and they can't use their automated power tools to dig the hole. Thus, they decided to move the new pole back from it's old location.

However, as you can see, the lower cables (TV or telephone I assume) on the pole are already stretched tight. That means PG&E couldn't move the pole back any further without a lot of additional work and coordination with different companies. Thus you get to a classic case of having to support competing goals: don't hit the water main, and als you can't move the pole back from the road any further.

As a result of this, PG&E decided to leave a section of the old pole in place, and anchor it on the new pole. While this certainly does look ridiculous, it's not an unreasonable solution. Sure, they probably could have gotten the water company to move their pipe. Maybe they could have gotten the phone company to splice in a longer cable so they didn't have to leave that piece of the old pole hanging there.

In the end, PG&E chose a solution that they could implement easily (leave a piece of the old pole in place) instead of a solution that would require more complicated interactions with other companies (moving the water main or other cables). That might not be the optimal answer, but it gets the job done. To be fair, note the rope at the bottom of the old piece of pole - that might indicate a temporay solution. Maybe PG&E will come back and solve this all for good at a later date - I don't know.

While I was working on this blog post, I read @evilchili's piece Good Enough Isn't. That got me thinking: was the PG&E solution an example of a 'good enough' answer that's just a bandaid? Perhaps. However given the real-world constraints involved I don't think I can fault them for the answer they ultimately came up with.

My point with all of this is that you should never be too quick to judge someone's solution to a particular problem. Maybe they did just do the minimal amount of work necessary to get the job done. Maybe there will be more failures in the future because the comprehensive solution wasn't implemented. Ultimately you can't make that decision until you understand all the variables. Take the time to consider the options, and weigh the pros and cons of available solutions. Some times the quick hack is the right answer, and sometimes a more comprehensive solution is needed.




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