Utilities digs up debate on undergrounding

Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 3, 1996

COMMUNITY: Utilities digs up debate on undergrounding

City wants to reverse trend of putting electrical equipment underground

by Peter Gauvin

For 30 years, the city of Palo Alto has been paying crews to stash unsightly electrical equipment, as well as power lines, underground. Now the city is having a change of heart. The city's Utilities Department now wants to come above ground--permanently and absolutely--with some of the equipment.

The power lines themselves would continue to be put underground, but new installations of transformers and other electrical equipment would be at surface level instead of being housed in vaults below ground. Equipment that is already underground would only be replaced if, and when, they fail.

The problem with underground equipment (transformers, switches and connectors) is it does not perform as well or as long as it should, said Larry Starr, assistant director of engineering and operations for the department.

"The equipment has come back to haunt us. We're not getting the life expectancy we should. The reliability is low, maintenance costs are higher and it costs more to install (than above-ground equipment)," Starr said.

A "pad-mounted," above-ground transformer will last 30 to 40 years and is very reliable, Starr said. The city's underground transformers last an average of 15 to 20 years before "they've rusted through."

"The environment, the dirty water, it's quite corrosive over a period of time," Starr said.

Because of the need to provide air vents for cooling and holes for wiring, no one has yet been able to design a waterproof vault, Starr said.

Thus, the Utilities Department wants the city to adopt a "pad-mounted-equipment only policy." The City Council is slated to consider this reversal Jan. 29.

"This is pretty much the way the utility industry has gone," Starr said. "In fact, it's very hard to buy submersible equipment because everybody has switched to pad-mounted equipment. For one certain type of transformers we use, we have to buy them in Canada. The reason there are so few suppliers for this equipment is there's no market."

For the last 30 years, city workers have been slowly putting overhead power lines underground, and sinking most of the equipment below ground as well. Starr estimates they have about 70 percent of the city left to convert from overhead to put underground. Currently, they're "undergrounding" the Southgate neighborhood, south of Palo Alto High School, but placing the equipment above ground.

"In the last five years we've been making more of an effort for people to give us a location for pad-mounted equipment," Starr said.

Businesses in Stanford Research Park and elsewhere have been fairly cooperative because it benefits them to have more reliable power. But residents haven't been as cooperative because they think the equipment boxes will be an unattractive addition.

However, Southgate resident Jim McFall, a member of the the city's most strident defender of visual appeal--the Architectural Review Board--said he thinks the Utilities Department has done a good job so far of locating transformers in his neighborhood without being obtrusive.

When the board reviewed the pad-mount-only policy in November, he said there was a little a little concern that it would be a hard-and-fast rule without any flexibility for special circumstances.

"We understand it's a problem for Utilities, but I wouldn't want to lose the opportunity for discussing alternatives in some situations," McFall said. "The ARB prefers that transformers not be visible because they tend to be less than attractive to look at."

In residential areas, transformer boxes average about three feet long, three feet wide and 2 1/2 feet high, but for larger commercial buildings they can be quite a bit bigger, Starr said.

There are about 2,200 transformers citywide, and they're not as obtrusive or as prevalent as some people think, Starr said. Generally, pad-mounted residential transformers will serve 20 homes on both sides of the street, so there is only about one per block or every other block.

"They're not like cable TV pedestals that are on every lot line," he said.

To ease the visual trauma, Starr said the city would offer a concurrent program to paint the pad-mounted boxes different colors to blend in with buildings and plant landscaping around them, where requested.

There will continue to be some instances where the city will have to put equipment below ground, such as with many of the older buildings downtown, he said.

But overall, Starr said, the choice comes down to "reliability and quality of service, rather than appearance." 

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