Friday Question of the Day: How Imp’t are Buried Power Lines to You?

Unfortunately many of us dealt with downed power lines after the recent brutal storms we’ve experienced. Now, I remember I was once told that power lines are buried underground in many Capitol Hill neighborhoods. And now that I think about I can’t recall seeing overhead wires on the Hill. The photo above is from New Hampshire Ave, NW in Petworth and the photo below is off Ordway Street, NW in Cleveland Park. It seems that overhead wires are in most if not all NW neighborhoods. Does anyone know of other neighborhoods were there are buried power wires?

So a couple of other questions come to mind. First does anyone know the circumstances of how the Hill neighborhoods got buried wires? Second, and the FQotD: Would you be willing to pay a higher Pepco bill if that was the trade off to get the wires buried in your neighborhood? And in general are buried power lines something that is important to you?

54 Comment

  • The wires were ordered by an act of congress way back before we were born to be buried in the Federal City. This is the area of Washington that is bounded by the majority of Florida Ave. Back in the day anything north of Florida ave NE and NW was considered the “suburbs” so all electric was buried which included Capitol Hill. so every thing North of Florida Ave is “NOT” in Federal City and thus does not fall under the rule to have buried electric wires.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      Great info, thanks! So do you think wires north of Florida Ave should be buried as well or it’ll be too expensive?

      • the older “suburbs” of ledroit park and bloomingdale have buried lines. the city extended beyond florida by the time lectricty came round.
        see also: streetcar

        • Ledroit park and Bloomingdale
          was part of the “Federal City” where wealthy people lived and is included since they are on the border with Florida Ave Thats why the debate on “Hst” about the new street car is being or has been settled since ( either to power the street cars from overhead wires or battery powered.

          • first you say everything north of florida avenue was not the federal city, then you claim these two north of florida avenues neighborhoods were part of the federal city. which was it?

          • I live in Petworth and have raised lines, but as soon as I cross Georgia into 16th Street Heights, they have buried lines. Why is that? We’re both well out of the Federal City.

  • If we are ready to handle and pay for a rate increase to bury the power lines, then call, write, email our CMs and Mayor. As for the cost…plan on about $3 million per mile to bury those cables.

  • We have underground electrical in Bloomingdale. We still lost power the other day. Pepco said it was a transformer issue. In the past couple of years, we’ve lost power on my block two other times that I am aware of. In both cases, there was smoke coming out of the manhole covers out front. A Pepco worker told me the that the cables were older and once they were replaced, we shouldn’t have any problems for a long time.

  • Here in Columbia Heights we have underground distribution lines, and we haven’t lost power once this year. The typical rule of thumb is that burying lines costs 10x as much as overhead lines, so the tradeoff isn’t usually worth it. When underground lines do have a fault it’s also much more difficult and expensive to isolate and fix the problem.

    • +1

      I once lived in a neighborhood with buried lines, and the “mysterious” power outages were really annoying. They’re great for a while, but if you get damage or water in the insulation, then you tend to get things like breakers tripping for no apparent reason (breakers on the transformers, BTW) or blown transformers.

      “Fixing” the problem was far too costly, so we just had to live with it – not costly for customers directly, but for the power co. They just would not tear up the sidewalks, yards and streets to fix this issue, and doing so would have been hugely disruptive and inconvenient as well.

      Sure, they’re unsightly and sure, they get hit by trees, etc. But they are much easier to fix.

  • I live in Brookland, where a strange group of people who are normally neighborhood NIMBYs and tin foil hat club members decided that undergrounding the power lines was their issue. The impetus for it was that 12th st. was being torn up to streetscape improvements anyways, and that it was a good time to do it. Now, any time somebody wants to repaint an intersection or add bike racks at a school they go ballistic on the neighborhood list serve about why the power lines aren’t underground with that money. It’s bizarre.

    It might be nice for new construction to bury them, but my understanding of it is that it is all the way beyond cost effective to bury lines that are already hung. They don’t require as frequent maintenance once they’re underground, but when they do it is a major PITA. Aesthetically, it would be nice to have them hidden, but it would be just crazy expensive. There are a million better things for the city/Pepco to do with its money.

    • Good note on the Brookland NIMBYs. I don’t know if every neighborhood has them, but jeez they’re batty.

      • because of brookland NIMBY’s as you so flippantly say, brookland is still a neighborhood and not a freeway.

  • Impossible and kind of pointless question unless we know the actual cost per household per year. Would you pay $500 extra? 800? 1000?

  • We have buried lines here on the 1300 block of Quincy Street. The phone and cable are on poles in the back, but the power is not.

  • I’m on the fence, but I’ll point out that underground power lines are what cause exploding manhole covers (along with other active ingredients).

  • Buried lines would be nice, however, on streets with rowhouses, especially those on steep grades, it’s simply not practical. Lines could be placed in more agreeable spots, and the way phone and cable lines are hung is often insane.

    Let’s focus on getting water and sewer lines improved. There are too many non-functioning extinguisher lines in DC. And, improved sewers are better for the rivers and drainage. But, nobody was ever elected on a platform involving improved sewer system. :+/

  • I was at a meeting where high-and-mighty Georgetown residents had browbeat PEPCO engineers and PR flacks to a site meeting for their little block and the desire to underground wires. Councilmember was there too. He got to see PEPCO tap dance their way through the barrage. The final answer from PEPCO: when pigs fly.

    One of PEPCO’s favorite excuses: “But we don’t know who owns the poles. We can’t touch other people’s property. We’ll never be able to figure out who owns the poles. Poor us.”

    Repeat after me: PEPCO is untouchable and will do whatever they want.

  • What do buried power lines have to do with impotency?

  • For everything you want to know about undergrounding DC’s electric system, check out this July 2010 report for the DC Public Service Commission:

    In particular, page 6 (the 16th page in the pdf) has a summary of costs. While the costs are fairly transparent and predictable, the impact on rates is anything but. I’m not aware of a rate case involving undergrounding in the District. But, it wouldn’t be too hard to just divide the total cost by ten years and then the total kwh sales to get a ROUGH idea of what the rate impact would be.

  • 21st and P area of Dupont Circle has buried power lines.

  • I live off Tilden Street between Cleveland Park and Van Ness and our power lines are buried. We haven’t lost power yet this year. I also lived in Woodley Park for 6 years with buried power lines and only once lost power, due to a transformer fire in Adams Morgan.

  • I’ve lived where I do now (on the Hill, with buried lines) for 9 years and I’ve never lost power for more than a minute or two.

    When people on the NE edges of the Hill lost power for so long earlier this summer, it was a result of underground transformer fires – so in that circumstance, buried lines didn’t make a difference. If the infrastructure is old and over capacity, it doesn’t matter if the lines are under or above ground. But, we don’t generally lose power in storms.

    • Ditto here. I’ve been in my place on the Hill for 9 years and have only lost power once in all that time, during the hurricane in 2003.

  • Bury ’em. Power outages should be a thing of the past. This is the damned 27th century for heaven’s sake.

    • I know! We can have flying cars and intergalactic space travel but we can’t bury some damned power lines? Outrageous!


  • I have buried lines where I live in Adams Morgan. I’ve lived in DC for 8 years and have only had the power go out at home once. I don’t even think that was related to a storm.

  • Adams Morgan and parts of Kalorama, too, have buried lines. We don’t lose power very often, and I’ve always assumed that’s why.

  • If you want power 100% of the time buy a generator. We need better schools and more police before we need buried power lines.

    I am really getting sick of people complaining about their power being shut off. If you can afford a $5000,000 home then you can afford $2000 for a generator.

    Or maybe put solar panels on your roof and make the world a better place.

    • Very dangerous. CO poisoning death happens almost every summer.

      • Not with whole house generators. Yes if you get a small gas powered generator and run it in your house. A whole house gas fired generator that sits outside you home on a pad (similar to an AC compressor) is very safe.

        • And you can get the kind that runs of natural gas, so no tanks to refill. When was the last time your gas went out?

          Solar + a small wind turbine would be ideal. Especially with all these flat roofs and few trees blocking light at that height. Wind would compensate for dark, stormy nights, but readily available technologies tends to cause vibrations or noise, and violate building codes.

          As part of any effort to get off the grid (even if just while running a generator), the first step is to reduce consumption. Extra and/or old refrigerators, electronics with power bricks plugged in all over the house (e.g. cell phone chargers, DVRs, flat screens), and improperly tuned appliances all need attention. Most of us could probably cut our power bills in half (or by 1/3 for renters) with a few simple changes that don’t require lifestyle adjustments.

  • 13th and N south of Logan Circle. Buried lines, never had a power outage once in the seven years I’ve lived in my place – even when there were outages in Shaw and downtown just a block away. Amazing. In contrast, the ‘rents live in West Bethesda where the power lines are NOT buried and are ALWAYS the first to have their power go out, and the last to get it back. This year seems to have been the worst ever for power outages there.

  • Why is it that cash-strapped countries in eastern Europe can have underground wires in their cities, but somehow it’s a problem in the richest nation on Earth?

  • Power outages are a direct result of the fact that DC’s rate commission *only* cares about cheapest cost. They refuse to raise rates high enough to replace the infrastructure faster than it’s deteriorating (not that PEPCO cares). So instead of proactively replacing old things before they break (lower cost) we wait until they break to replace them (higher cost and aggravation).

    The DC rate commission owns at least 50% of the problem.

    Also, there are overhead lines all over Capitol Hill. They’re in the alleys and they’re cable/phone.

  • Underground wires are so important to me that I couldn’t even tell you whether the wires outside my building and around my neighborhood are above ground or below ground. I’ve literally never noticed, thought about it or cared. All I know is that i do in fact get electricity. I’ve lived in my apartment for 5.5 years and never once lost power (even when all the buildings around us seem to have lost it).

    If the wires do happen to be above ground, and it costs more than about 99 cents to bury them, then i’m against it.

  • As someone who has lost power 9 times since Dec, I don’t care what is done as long as SOMETHING is!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I use to live in rural Maine and had more reliable power then I do living in DC.

    Honestly, I am moving because of this and it sucks because I do like living in the Brentwood area.

  • Underground wires are part and parcel of the controversy over streetcars in Capitol Hill. Congress back in the late 1800s decided to ban overhead wires and so we don’t have many of them at all (a few telephone and cable co ones).

    And yes, why is it East European countries can afford underground wires and the US can’t?

  • blester01

    People need to realize that burying power lines will not stop power outages. It is a misconception. There was a study done a couple of years ago that showed overhead and buried lines experienced outages at similar rates.

    However, burying the power lines improves the sightlines and helps clear the visual clutter that it creates. It also allows trees in the island curbs to be able to grow to maturity (improving the landscape). It may cost more, but I am for burying them just to improve the neighborhoods aesthetics.

    • b.s.

      there’s no way buried and overhead power gets knocked out at the same rate. i have had my power go out maybe twice in ledroit park in the past ten years.

  • Yeah, I LOVE living on a block with buried power lines here in Columbia Heights. The story I’ve heard is that when there was unrest in this area in the 1960s and some buildings burned, when the area was re-built, underground power was put in. I’ve never been able to verify that. Anyone know if that’s true?

    But I gotta say, I LOVE underground power lines. The only time I’ve ever lost power in 8 yrs was during the 14th St construction this summer when a power line was accidentally severed.

    • I’ve lived in Northern Columbia Heights for over 2 years and we’ve lost power a total of 30 seconds. With overhead lines. Above ground or under ground, I don’t see a difference. I have enough problems with Pepco’s billing practices, I don’t need a rate increase.

  • In Park View, the community fought for and got buried power lines by the 1920s. The area around me hasn’t lost power once in these recent storms.

  • Coming into the District along Rhode Island Avenue, there are power poles and lines, and the city continues to plant beautiful willow oak trees directly under them. Every single one of those trees gets hacked down by Pepco into an ugly mutant. Go under the Rhode Island Avenue Metro track, the power lines are buried, and the oaks are beautiful! Typical DC way of (not) thinking by authorities. Bury the lines!

  • Buried does not guarantee no outages. Adams Morgan area by where the T Street -AED transformer blew a week ago Thursday lost power and the Hilton was evacuated. But this was the only time in 15 years we lost power for a number of hours…

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