Posted: December 11th, 2007 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Manhole Covers, South Africa, Urbanism and Planning | 1 Comment »
Fueled by record high metal prices, thieves from Chevy Chase, Maryland to Mumbai, India are causing headaches for authorities by stealing copper wires, aluminum bleachers, zinc artwork, and iron manhole covers. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the problem of metal theft drove one energy company executives to confront directly those who would cut down copper wiring to sell for a quick profit.
Thanks to strong demand due to rapid economic growth in China and India, the price of a variety of metals has hit historic highs. In the words of one commentary: “The five major base metals, copper, zinc, nickel, lead and aluminum, are all in the midst of spectacular secular bull markets that have seen each of them shatter their previous all-time highs. At their recent bull-to-date highs these metals have risen 575%, 537%, 1,124%, 888% and 145% respectively. These numbers are simply astonishing, and based on these metals’ current fundamentals they are likely not done yet.” The increases have boosted the value of scrap sources tremendously.
The problem of metal theft has become common enough in South Africa that a new housing development I visited last summer was installing polymer sewer grates and manhole covers made from metal with no scrap value. A public service announcement that played at the movie theater dramatized the harmful impacts of telephone wiring thefts with actors playing the role of businesspeople cut off from phone service.
Last year, wiring theft in Melbourne, Australia delayed hundreds of trains before repairs could be made. Tens of thousands of manhole covers are stolen each year in Beijing. In Mumbai, an artist couple lost over 60 zinc metal plates, the product of 10 years of work. An interesting story from the New York Times published in 2004 described how high metal prices was cleaning up metal junk across Asia:
The invisible hand of high scrap prices is tidying Mongolia’s sere and treeless landscape, a tableau now picked clean of metal trash. On a recent six-hour drive across the steppe, only two wrecked cars could be seen. One had been converted into a feed dispenser for livestock. The other car had been in an accident only a few hours earlier. …
The Pacific port of Vladivostok, once disfigured with half-sunken derelict boats, has been cleaned up, restoring the harbor’s reputation as the San Francisco of the Russian Far East. Moving deeper and deeper into Siberia in search of junk metal, the INI Steel Company of South Korea opened a purchasing office in 2003 in Yakutsk, 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
The phenomenon has not been limited to developing economies. Earlier this year, thieves stripped copper downspouts off fancy Chevy Chase homes and stole wiring at Houston’s public library. Perhaps hardest hit has been Detroit. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at around 7%, and the Detroit area’s is around 8%. With copper fetching over $3 a pound, it becomes attractive for theft.
According to a press release issued earlier this year, the city’s primary telephone and power utilities reported over 370 incidents of copper theft in the first half of 2007, and have begun a program offering $1,000 for any information relating to copper theft. For a recent magazine article, a reporter tagged along with a power company executive investigating a report of stolen wire. The thieves were seen in Detroit burning off the rubber sheathing to prepare stolen wire for redemption at a scrap yard. The photo shows the executive, Michael Lynch, extinguishing the wires while the man who had been tending it looks on. The article describes in some detail the connection between metal theft and drug use. The problem is not limited to utility wires, the theft of copper piping at a historic Detroit gym drew the attention of the Freakonomics blog last year.
The high prices and low warehouse reserves (‘LME’ above) of copper and other metals could have a variety of implications for our cities. We should expect to see more manhole covers and sewer grates from non-valuable, and perhaps non-recyclable materials. Greater attention will be paid to securing readily available metals wherever they are found.
The raw material costs may also filter into the building process, as they raise the cost of basic infrastructure. In South Africa we learned how architects, engineers, and planners had sought to design homes and communities using the absolute minimum piping and wiring while providing basic services, in order to maximize public housing production with taxpayer’s money. This minimalist architecture has spread to the private realm, where wealthy clients sought highly basic homes for lifestyle reasons.
If we relate this basic architecture to discussions about the virtues of small homes, we can easily see how this could become connected to a broader efficiency ethos. The resulting city could be reminiscent Richard Sennett’s “architecture of justice,” a city that convinces us to live with less …
> Chief Security Officer Online, 2/1/07: “Copper Theft: The Metal Theft Epidemic“
Posted: March 30th, 2007 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: District of Columbia, Georgetown, Manhole Covers, Urban Development | 3 Comments »
A commenter recently pointed out I neglected to mention manhole explosions in my previous post on the manhole covers of Washington, D.C. While I came across reports of these explosions in my research, I dismissed them as isolated incidents. It appears I was wrong.
As explained by the website Howstuffworks, manhole cover explosions are caused when the eletrical cables ignite gasses underground. They can launch a 85-to-300-pound electrical manhole cover like the one to the left as far as 50 feet, and explosions have injured or killed construction workers and pedestrians, shattered windows, and overturned cars. Between 2000 and 2003, there were over 100 manhole explosions or fires in the District of Columbia. It’s unclear how many have happened since, although several incidents have been reported by the media. In May 2005, an explosion near the World Bank closed a four-block radius for hours, causing commuter headaches. Earlier this year, an early-morning manhole explosion and fire near the Mall caused major traffic backups after the incident knocked out stoplights at dozens of intersections, causing DDOT to put to use some of the 200 small generators it purchased for use in emergencies to keep traffic lights operating.
The most notable explosion in recent years was a massive March 2000 incident in Georgetown that sent six manholes flying and shattered storefront windows. Although a $40 million project was completed to upgrade the underground utilities, the Georgetown student newspaper The Hoya reported another explosion in 2003 — exactly three years later. After the spectacular Georgetown explosion, PEPCO blamed a Washington Gas crew’s probe for the damage that resulted in the explosion, and announced they would install vented manhole covers (like the one seen to the right) to “reduce threats to public safety from displaced manhole covers.”
However, the Georgetown incident was far from isolated: between February and July, 2000, over 20 separate manhole events were reported. In response, the DC Office of the People’s Counsel asked the DC Public Service Commission to initiate a formal report to examine the phenomenon. The investigation resulted in a major 174-page report (PDF) completed by Stone & Webster Consultants and released in December 2001. In it, the authors concluded that “it is our professional opinion that overloading is a primary factor in cable and splice failures, which may ultimately lead to manhole smoking, fires and explosions.” The report recommended improved maintenance and record keeping by PEPCO, as well as technical changes to minimize the possibility of overloaded cables underground.
Although they found the integrity of the electrical network acceptable or good in most places, the report cited examples of manholes crowded with cables, flooded with water, containing leaking transformers, or containing hot cables with faulty connections, particularly in Georgetown and Adams Morgan. Here are a couple of the more troubling images from the report — we can only hope they have been remedied in the years since.
As the table to the right shows, manhole fires and explosions are by no means unique to Washington. In fact, compared with many other large electrical utilities in the country, in 2000 PEPCO’s number of manhole “incidents” per 1,000 covers was .7, far below ConEdison’s 4 or Florida Power and Light’s rate of 14. A quick Google News search found recent explosions in Reno, Nevada, Hartford, Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts. It seems the occasional underground explosion is the inevitable result of running high-voltage electrical wires and equipment underground, underscoring the importance of routine inspection of these facilities.
> DC Public Service Commission Formal Case Number 991, 12/7/01, “Assessment of the Underground Distribution System of the Potomac Electric Power Company” (PDF, 4 mb)
> DC Office of the People’s Counsel: “Investigation into Manhole Explosions,” “Overview of Manhole Explosions 2000-2003”
> How Stuff Works: How Exploding Manholes Work
Posted: March 22nd, 2007 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: District of Columbia, Government, History, Manhole Covers, Urban Development | 10 Comments »
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about manhole covers recently.
I was reminded of the topic at a recent lecture by Dr. Timothy Beatly during a lecture about urban placemaking. He was speaking about ways European and Australian cities create distinctive urban environments. European cities, generally much denser and with higher foot traffic than American cities, are known for their elaborate and decorative manhole covers.
In the U.S. the topic is subject to considerably less attention. The major noteworthy book-length treatment of the subject is a text by Diana Stuart titled, “Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City.” In the text she examines the aesthetics of manhole covers in New York City, including photos of roughly 400 covers from all five boroughs. The only other notable book I could find on Amazon is by the husband and wife team Mimi and Robert Melnick, authors of the 1974 “Manhole Covers of Los Angeles,” and a larger work titled simply “Manhole Covers,” published in 1994.
Although a decidedly a niche topic, there exists a wide variety of websites with photos of manhole covers from around the world, and several groups on flickr dedicated to the topic, the largest called simply “manhole cover” contains over 3,000 photos. After a survey of the web I’ve been unable to uncover any detailed treatment of the subject specific to Washington, D.C. This article is intended to be simply an introduction to the topic.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm by other manhole hunters for Washington, D.C., I think the city is a good place to look for them for a couple of reasons. First, much of the city has been fairly intensively urbanized for well over 100 years, and second, the city’s unique history means multiple entities have been responsible for the development of urban infrastructure. Whether it was the federal government, the region’s water and sewer authority, or one of a series of now-defunct forms of D.C. government, there’s been no shortage of agencies digging holes in the ground for various purposes.
Unlike many of the foreign examples, few of the covers I have found are unusually ornate or beautiful. Most are utilitarian in nature, and many of the contemporary covers are positively dull. Beauty aside, to the informed reader manholes can tell a story about the history and function of the modern city. Given their standard size and durable construction, manhole covers can have a long lifespan. This photo I snapped during a road re-surfacing project near the Mall shows why: when a road is re-paved, the manhole and its collar are retained:
These covers are perhaps more properly called drains; they are designed to convey water to the sewer system. The first I spotted near the U.S. Capitol, the second an unusual design I found on 10th Street in the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood. Those curious to read more about what might happen to the wastewater when it runs beyond the grate are advised to check out Amy Longsworth’s detailed City Paper cover story from March 2005 titled “Who’ll Stop the Drain?” where a quest to uncover the mystery of an overflowing basement toilet leads her to unravel intricacies of a 100-year-old sewer system.
Many of the covers found in D.C. are owned by either the DC Water and Sewer Authority or PEPCO, the area’s electrical utility. Although generally quite dull in design, there exist a number of varieties.
Another category of covers are those installed by telecommunications companies. The first cover I spotted has the name “C&P Telephone,” (after the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company) dating it from before 1994, when the company was re-named “Bell Atlantic – Washington, D.C.” This AT&T cover I found downtown could perhaps be dated by the type of logo used – anyone have a guess on the year?
The first sewer system in Washington, D.C. was created by Alexander “Boss” Shepherd (more) who was by all accounts decisive if not always fiscally attentive leader. During his tenure as the head of the Board of Public Works, the city’s infrastructure was overhauled in a frantic few years that saw new sewer, paving, and bridge construction. However, the spending plunged the city government into debt. A variety of covers dating from the period shortly after can be identified by both their design, and the year stamped at the center. In fact, an example of this vintage from 1901 is the only example I found with a crack.
I found a couple examples of manholes by specific agencies in addition to the utilities. They include this GSA manhole I found near the mall, and this WMATA manhole I shot in Wheaton, MD.
Lastly there are those that defy easy explanation. I found the first also along 10th Street, and the second near a new condo building near the convention center. Does SL/TS stand for Signal Light/Traffic Signal?
This post contains just a sampling of what the streets of Washington contain, mostly along several streets I happened to walk along recently. I have omitted any mention of water or gas meters, which have their own story to tell. Lastly, this photo suggests D.C. may contain covers quite a bit more interesting than those highlighted above. Will someone find an original Shephard-era manhole cover? Does the city contain a truly beautiful manhole? Only time will tell.
> The Wikipedia’s manhole cover article is a good overview of the topic
> This NPR story contains a slide show of foreign manhole covers: When Traffic Lights make Us Stop and Think
> Gotham Gazette has a review of Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City
> Check out the DC Water and Sewer Authority History Page for a remarkably detailed article on the history of D.C. sewer
> The March 4, 2005 Washington City Paper cover story “Who’ll Stop the Drain?” is a humorous exploration of the D.C. sewer
> View my photos of Manhole Covers and Other Items in Washington, D.C.