Bury The Wires? Not So Fast!

Recent tree cutting by Eversource and Metro-North at the Westport train station evoked a predictable response: Bury the power lines!

It sounds doable, though probably expensive.

Recent tree removal (and overhead wires) at the Westport train station. (Photo/Matthew Mandell)

But that’s not the only issue. A Westporter with long experience in areas like this writes:

To “burying the lines” — and not just those owned by Eversource, but also phone (now owned by Frontier) and cable (Optimum) — you’d need to:

  • Get all 3 companies working on the project simultaneously
  • Get 100% of every house, building, traffic signal, street light, closed circuit TV camera, fire siren, crosswalk signal, etc., to agree to go underground
  • Every existing overhead service would need to be prepared for the new underground connection in advance (and all work on private property up to and including the meter box and service panel at the home or building is the responsibility of the owner — costing at least several thousand dollars for just a simple home (200 amp, which is not the average with today’s large homes)
  • Once all are agreed 100%, the underground system would be installed in conduits in trenches alongside or within the street, including pad-mounted transformers (boxy containers roughly 3 x 4 feet by 3-foot high, located along the street on the shoulder of the road)
  • Each home or building owner would trench from the transformer pad to the location on the house or building where the meter would be (all trenching on private property is done by the home or building owner’s contractor, paid for by the owner)
  • Once all is ready (as in 100%), the system would then be transferred to the new underground wiring from the overhead
  • Only when all the above is done 100%, and every building is operating on the new underground system (electric, phone and cable), can the old overhead system of wires, poles and transformers be removed.

If all this sounds very complicated, very expensive and nearly impossible: It is!

Which is why the overhead system we look at continues as the source for somewhere around 90% of most towns’ residences and commercial buildings in this area.

Cables on South Compo Road. Burying these lines is far easier said than done. (Photo/Morgan Mermagen)

23 responses to “Bury The Wires? Not So Fast!

  1. And they said we couldn’t get to the moon, too!

  2. Julie shapiro

    We lived in Southern California for years – never saw above ground cable or electrical wires – all underground

  3. Scott R. Smith

    So is Westport anywhere close to having 10% of our utility wires underground, as your writer alludes to as the standard? We should prioritize burying the lines most at risk and/or unsightly. My other question: How many of our local overhead wires are inactive? My neighbor has seven separate wires running to their house. I fear many utilities have walked away from clearing defunct lines, and newer operators won’t touch them…

    • A good example is, SNET built out a cable network years ago. Their stuff is still all around town.

  4. There has been a slow and steady accretion of overhead wires over the years. FIrst there was power (at the top of the poles), then power and telephone (a few feet lower), and then power, telephone, and cable (now the lowest set of wires, usually rather fat). The companies supplying our communication needs have taken the least cost approach, and we’ve all benefited in lower prices, but the three layers of wires combine to be a large, overhead, and growing ugly infrastucture.
    The solution? Make lemonade out of lemons. Take the Christo approach: Wrap all three sets of wires in one giant pink tarp and call it a work of art.

  5. Thank you. Finally someone said the ugly truth. Southern California is not New England. They built their system underground from day one. Unfortunately, ours is already fully built out, above ground. Keep in mind that as alluded to above. There are several parties involved. Not just power, phone, and cable. Some of the lines you see include fiber optic for the town network. There are some lines for the State. So, who is going to foot that bill? I surely can’t. Let’s also think about the ability for expansion. Right now we are stuck with Optimum. People complain about them on this blog almost daily. Who will pay for additional conduits to be buried so that of some competitors came to town they would have a place to go? Surely the barrier to entry is less expensive to hang new lines on a pole vs digging up the town.

    Let’s not forget the elephant in the room. How often do you see everyone complaining about every single construction project in town? Waterline down by the beach, gas mains extensions around town. The complaining is endless. Those projects are a mile or so at a time. We have hundreds of miles of road. This isn’t as simple as saying, “well they are putting gas in the road, why can’t they bury the wires?” First off, they cannot be in the same hole. So, the process of digging up the road for the gas line, for example will then take twice as long and people will inevitably complain about how long it takes. Secondly, back to the coordination aspect. The gas company is not responsible for the power, cable, phone, etc. Why would they spend more of their money to coordinate their work with the other players? Again, who is paying that bill? I’m not. Remember the multi year project back in 2007 that installed power lines down the Post Road? Remember how noisy that was at night? Now the cost. That line runs from Middletown to Norwalk. 69 miles. Much of it is overhead in less dense areas. But, it is underground from Milford to Norwalk. The cost of the total project? $1.3 Billion with a B. Not cheap. Again, who’s paying?

    This kinda rambles on. But, I hope you can get the idea. This fantasy idea, while everyone can agree is a great idea behind a keyboard, it’s far from practical.

  6. Ernie Lorimer

    Always a fun topic. Southern California is mostly clay, and as Cary Grant found out, Fairfield County is mostly rock. It’s an open question whether any particular stretch would be more resilient: I’m guessing undergrounding in Compo would be cheaper but less resilient than undergrounding in Birdland.

    Since Optimum and Frontier, and maybe another, have been overbuilding their territory with fiber, There are stretches where it looks like six or seven arm-thick fiber runs will pull down the poles, and some of it looks to have built furiously fast, with hideous results. I’m curious when any of it will be lit. I know I have someone’s fiber at my pole, but neither report it as available to me.

    • Ernie, press the cable company on it. I had several times been told no, fiber is not available, but I kept on pressing and someone finally admitted it was. I got fiber and it is amazing.

  7. Melissa Ceriale

    A long, hard and difficult process, to underground the utilities in town? Absolutely. A fantasy? No. Towns all over the country are doing this, not just new ones that have the ease and opportunity to start from scratch. Look at Florida with communities that have been assaulted by hurricanes … Towns all over are finally coming to grips with the need to protect their residents with stronger, safer, more resilient power supplies. And all those utility providers are all working together, imagine that.

    And it isn’t done with outlays of money by the individual residents. These are Town monies that are discussed, voted on and bonded.

    This is an issue that Westport should discuss as a full community to establish a long-term plan, starting with the most vulnerable and opportunistic locations (like the train station currently under disarray perhaps).

    Imagine that we vote on and decide to underground our town over the next decade or so. And, at the same time, build some much-needed sidewalks to help reduce traffic, increase pedestrian-friendly walkways and help improve our overall quality of life. Children could walk a block or two to communal bus stops, lessening the need for a bus to stop at every single house on a road … shortening the time to school which would encourage every mother in town to put Susie or Johnny on the bus instead of driving them so they can get those extra 10 or 20 mins of needed sleep in the morning.

    Maybe some would consider this a fantasy. I like to dream of a better place to live and raise a family.

  8. As someone that lived in an area that was flooded by sandy with buried electrical, the electrical was still shorting out 7+ years later on the utility side. That’s what happens with saltwater intrusion. Not too mention in addition to low lying areas that are flood prone, Westport has tons of upland wet lands and ground water. So is everyone proposing underground utilities ok with the fact that it’s inevitable that wet lands will have to be cut into and ground drainage could also be impacted? These are two of the top concerns aside from cost and level of effort. I think it’s time to let the idea go?

    • Main St is a prime example. Those lines have been replaced and or repaired after almost every flooding event.

  9. Chip Stephens

    All you are talking 20 century technology. A wireless solution for phone and cable could eliminate all but the electrical conduit. A robust 5G network could eliminate the cable, fiber optic and old phone clutter and as a bonus all the communication and entertainment would not be lost every electric outage especially if one has a generator or battery backup. The technology for this wireless solution is available now and building this replacement would be much friendlier to new generation technology upgrades as no new wires or fiber would need to be strung above ground or dug underground. JMHO

    • Bill Strittmatter

      As a practical matter, even with 5G you will probably still need fiber to connect to all the 5G antennas. In theory, one might be able to create a mesh network between all the 5G antennas however that would use up considerable bandwidth for back haul that would better be used delivering bandwidth to customers.

    • 5g requires back haul as another poster said. also, no way you are eliminating hard wire internet. many require it. can you imagine bridgewater associates running on 5g? haha. also no way you are convincing all the companies offering internet service in the area to ditch their offerings. many have invested billions in the past year or two building it out (altice/optimum, frontier, gonetspeed, etc). its just not realistic.

  10. celeste k lacroix

    Remember all newer homes are already using underground service. Something like this is done over time. Stop being hysterical.

  11. Jerid O'Connell

    My neighbor had the lines on Beachside buried. They even went across the bridge at Southport Beach into Fairfield. It shows it can be done. It looks so good and the lines are protected.

    • Thats great but they still go up a pole and connect high up on the pole. They will no longer be protected from flooding if the utility is moved into the ground.

  12. This is how we become a third world country. He is probably right that we can’t get this done, but only because nobody in a decision making position is rewarded on what things could look like 10-15-20 years from now – not CEOs nor politicians. So we’ll watch our infrastructure slip away until we can only pretend to be a first world nation.

  13. I dare anyone to try burying the power lines on an older private road around here. The estimated cost is UNbelievable. And the obstacles just keep on coming. At a certain point our street realized that it was just a carload of crazy and we opted not to move forward. Some problems, it turns out, are not reasonably solvable – but this one can at least be managed: buy a generator.

    • Even if you buried the lines on the private street, they will be above ground for most of the run back to the power plant with plenty of opportunities to be knocked out in a storm. Even if you buried the lines on your street, you’d still want a generator, right? Same with people that say oh we ran our utilities underground from our home to the street that will keep us going during a storm, and then I point out the power lines in the street are above ground, and they are above ground all the way to the substation, and power plant… All the burying does is help with aesthetics…

  14. Michael Savignol

    In Germany, no overhead wires – all buried! Let’s do it @ Westport… and the rest of Fairfield County and perhaps the State. Lot of rocks … Costly but…… worth it on a (very) long run.

    • As a business operator, I’m typically looking for a cost/benefit analysis. Has anyone seen the numbers for the payback on the costs of converting from overhead to buried? Even if the costs outweigh payback in reliability, at least we will then know the net value of the aesthetic benefis of not seeing the wires.

  15. Places like Germany, our west and midwest didn’t bury utility lines for aesthetic benefits. They did it for resiliency. We need resiliency planning here in Westport. While current new building goes underground, if the pole at the end of the driveway goes down in a storm, it does no good.
    As previously said, we didn’t get to the moon because we said, “It’s hard.”
    By the way, Germany didn’t do it ‘from day one.’
    Find out what and how it has been done elsewhere. Figure out how to do it here. Focus on resiliency.
    We just replaced the Kings Highway North bridge. In an area that constantly floods at the same elevation as the previous bridge. We know that water level is only expected to rise.
    One of the questions that should be asked in evaluating both regular projects and the expenditure of ARPA funds should be: Are we increasing the resiliency of Westport?