The Over-Under On Underground Wires

Yesterday’s post on the big new electrical poles on Greens Farms Road sparked a discussion about above-ground versus underground wires. Why, commenters wondered, doesn’t Westport bury its utility lines?

An alert “06880” reader with experience in the matter writes:

Undergrounding of existing overhead facilities is the most expensive option.

You need to build the entire system underground in advance, keeping the overhead in service (so the lights don’t go out), then convert 100% of all existing homes, buildings, traffic signals, street lights, etc., from an overhead service to having an underground service.

Then when all are supplied off the new (and expensive) underground systems, you return to remove all poles, overhead wires and transformers. And CL&P only handles the electric conversion. AT&T and cable TV providers also need to convert 100% of their customers to underground supply too, before removal of overhead equipment is accomplished.

At least we don't look like New York City in 1887.

At least we don’t look like New York City in 1887.

Plus, the costs of the new equipment as well as undepreciated life of the removed old overhead equipment, is paid for in advance by the town, neighborhood association or business council/chamber of commerce making the request to underground the area or town. They also provide or pay for all trenching, pavement repair and restoration required.

So, with this in mind, it’s no wonder that very few if any areas are converted to underground supply from existing overhead supply.

Examples of areas converted in the past include the very end of Hillspoint Road, from the corner where Compo Road and Soundview intersect to a point just past the third house facing the Sound from Compo (this was paid in full by 2 neighbors back in the early ’90s); a portion of the Longshore Park system, at the recently rebuilt halfway house and 10th hole tee, and another short piece where the lines run into Longshore marina and the swimming pool/tennis court area, done in 2001 as part of the rebuild of the refreshment stand and locker room building, also paid by the town/Park and Rec.

Another example was part of the South End in Stamford, where BLT is developing a massive urban renewal (and paying all the costs associated with this conversion).

I believe the portion of CL&P’s system that is now underground has grown to over 15%. Each year, a little more is added.

14 responses to “The Over-Under On Underground Wires

  1. Iain Bruce

    Twenty years ago, when I was working in the finance side of the industry, the rule of thumb on the cost of undergrounding was $1mm per mile. It’s more now, and probably a lot more in densely populated areas. If it were economical to do it, it would have been done. So it’s a choice at a price.

  2. They could have at least done the 100yds around the open space views. Chris Woods

  3. Nina Streitfeld

    Underground wiring appears to be the ideal. But is there a problem when an area floods?

  4. Bobbie Herman

    They would probably recoup the costs the next time there’s a disaster and they don’t have to call in out-of-state assistance.

  5. don bergmann

    Yes, the cost is substantial but somehow other countries manage to place wires underground. it is mostly a societal judgment and a willingness to expend some public funds. We placed our connecting wires to our house underground, a minor act and no big deal or cost. Many years ago when a new high voltage line was being located along the Post Rd., I tried to engage the Town and the businesses to take that opportunity to add all power and communication lines underground along with the new high voltage line. There was little leadership at the top of our government and again the costs, while not so much in this case, caused people not to even explore the possibility. I considered it a missed opportunity.
    Another issue, please participate in the anti cell tower rally on Tuesday at 92 Greens Farms Rd. The tower will be a monstrosity, no cell tower should be sited in a residence zone and this zone is a gateway to our beaches. Also, it can be fun to demonstrate.

    Don Bergmann

  6. Jessica Bram

    Thank you for this very informative explanation. Yes, underground wiring would be desirable but very expensive. A luxury, to be sure. Those who complain about our real estate tax burden should take this into account before saying “Someone should have … ” and characterizing such public expenditures as “no big deal.”

  7. Jack Whittle

    Like Don, we chose to re-position our incoming electric, cable and phone service underground from the nearest feeding pole to our house when renovating a few years ago. But it is decidedly not cheap (excavate a trench, buy and install a vault, buy and lay the schedule 40 HD conduit x3) and coordinating with CL&P was easily the worst part. But the elimination of the visual pollution, plus the freedom from trees taking out our service to the house, was worth it.

    It was as described in Dan’s post – you need to have and maintain the overhead service until you are ready to flip the switch and energize the underground service.

  8. brad french

    Buried my lines for a few thousand. Looks much better. New roads (like MIchael’s Way behind me) get buried service mandatory.

  9. Jane Lassner Zeitchick

    “You need to build the entire system underground in advance.”

    Why can’t it be done piecemeal?

  10. David J Loffredo

    We buried our lines 10 years ago, cost $5K and had to coordinate a half dozen different groups.

    A big issue with underground wires is that eventually no matter what you wrap them in it will corrode. NYC has the issue every Winter with salt from the sidewalks/roads finding its way underground.

    Its a romantic idea but not practical for a rural area like Westport. Next thing you know you’ll all want sidewalks and bike lanes too….

  11. The guy (or gal) who seems to know so much about utility lines has some reactions to the reactions to his (or her) insights. Here’s what he (or she) says:

    – Iain Bruce: Good factual, experience-based comments. His rule of thumb of $1 million per mile is still used for simple distribution circuits with single circuits with good trenching conditions, minimal pavement repairs and light density of residential or small commercial buildings to serve. He’s got a great conclusion: “the choice is definitely at a price.”

    Chris Woods: His plea to underground a short stretch is called “porpoising” in the industry. It’s avoided since it can create other problems, like forming a lightning trap which may damage underground equipment, and the high cost (each transition from overhead to underground and then back) is an even higher incremental cost than a total underground circuit, worsening the cost burden to whoever is paying.

    Nina Streitfeld: Water normally doesn’t harm underground cables, but transformers, metering and other exposed equipment not designed for submersion are all damaged by flooding – especially by salt water. Hundreds of transformers and meters had to be replaced in the beach areas and downtown Westport near the Saugatuck River following Hurricane Sandy.

    Bobbie Herman: At first glance savings due to less storm damage requiring fewer outside crews sounds attractive. But if a major storm costs $100 million in repairs, hypothetically, and Iain Bruce was even close with a cost of $1 million per mile converting overhead to underground, then at that rate and with thousands of circuit miles in CT — well, Westport has about 160 miles of roads, so $160 to $300 million as a very rough (and low) estimate to convert, would pay for itself in 2 to 3 major storms. And if we assume all 169 CT towns have the same miles of road per town, you’d need 300 to 400 major storms to pay for the conversion. All this is over-simplification but tries to show Mr Herman his calculus is off a bit.

    Don Bergmann: He had made his request to First Selectwoman Farrell, who turned to CL&P for an answer. CL&P responded that due to operational issues, no distribution power circuits, telephone or cable TV lines could occupy the same trench as the two 345,000 volt circuits built in 2006 to 2008 through Westport, largely along the Post Road. A separate trench or trenches with a 10-foot separation laterally would be required – thus in effect negating any assumed theoretical savings of co-occupying the same trench. Don had suggested a possible idea which was shown to be unrealistic as it was based on poor assumptions. Local town leadership did pursue the idea but quickly dropped the it when learning the real facts.

    Jessica Bram: In full agreement with her. Couldn’t have said it better.

    Jack Whittle: He did admit it wasn’t cheap to bury his service wires from the overhead street system to his house, but said he valued the visual improvements and peace of mind regards future storms that may have pulled his service down. Very realistic value proposition trade-off.

    Brad French: Accurate comments – and all new developments in many CT towns do require all utilities being placed underground (and all costs fall on the developers) – Westport included.

    Jane Zeitchick: The only way to do piecemeal is to define a segment, build total segment underground parallel to existing overhead, convert 100% of homes and businesses along segment to underground (including telephone and cable), then remove overhead equipment along same segment. So yes, phased-in construction is actually the norm.

    Mr Loffredo has the best response of the (now) 10. He tried it, paying $5,000 and requiring lots of coordination with many entities – but admits concerns since underground cables can fail especially with salt on roads (and in sea water) causing corrosion – then throwing out the sidewalk and bike lane comment – what a realist !

    Good discussion stimulated here, Dan – well done!

    • Bobbie Herman

      Thanks, but I’m a Ms., not a Mr.

    • don bergmann

      The description of my experience is not quite as I recall it. Yes, I did come to learn that there were complexities and costs. My recollection is that Diane let me pursue the effort, possibly encouraged it, but did not tell me that she had learned it could not work as easily as many had hoped. I never heard anything about such a large area of separation, only the need for some separation. However, this is all in the past. I continue to feel some frustration that so many other countries seem to be able to bury lots of their lines. Don Bergmann

  12. A model for future discussions on this site. Thank you for the public comments and expert commentary/responses.