Friday, February 03, 2017

Illuminating Infrastructure

I'm very nervous about the state and direction of our nation right now and am unsure about how to deal with it.

I want to get back into the habit of writing quick posts to share interesting things I come across.  At the very least, I hope to inform and entertain a few people.

I'm fascinated with infrastructure*.  It's so ubiquitous and reliable that we stop seeing it.  Yet, our comfortable lives would not be possible if we didn't cooperatively build and maintain our common infrastructure.

I recently learned about my neighborhood lift station, a place that pumps sewage uphill so that it can continue to flow downhill to a sewage treatment plant.  These stations are scattered all over the place, but they are usually designed to be as nondescript as possible.

I wish my neighborhood lift station was as cool as this one in Calgary.
That's a shame, because we then stop thinking about the everyday magic of infrastructure.  We flush and forget until something goes wrong.

Check out Calgary's solution that combines public art and the visual display of status information.
The crisscrossed LEDs on the Forest Lawn Lift Station form a graphical map of the 9 kilometers of pipe that feed into this building. Inside, a pump lifts Calgary’s wastewater to higher ground so it continues to flow by gravity to the Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment Plant. Connected to instruments inside, the lights change color according to water volume and demand: blue when water flows freely, red when the system is taxed.
I'm not a Canada fan girl, but I love the names.  The sewage treatment plant is called Bonnybrook!  Forest Lawn means something very different in Los Angeles.  LOL.

I first learned about this art/infrastructure project from a highly negative newspaper article that I refuse to link to.  Honestly, I think that the $236,000 (Canadian) is a reasonable price to pay for
  1. a real-time visual display of system operational status 
  2. public warning system for when their infrastructure is over-taxed
  3. public education about infrastructure
  4. cool art (Art is supposed to get you to see and think about things differently so this might reiterate point 3.)
Forest Lawn is just one of 40 sanitary wastewater lift stations in the city (Calgary); 33 more handle just stormwater. And yet, until this project, “I’d never seen one once,” says Surtees. “[They’re] not visually present in the fabric of the city.”
If I can see when my local lift station is over-taxed, I can delay my shower or my load of laundry. Alternatively, if I see that the local sewage flow is running sluggishly, I might start the clothes or dish washer earlier to help keep the water pressure up.  If we see that the system is running red (overtaxed) much of the time, we can plan to upgrade to a larger pump before a catastrophic failure.

Isn't it cool to see a map of how our homes are all connected by our common infrastructure? To see the shape and size of our network?

Walking My Watershed contains pictures of my local RB stormwater basin, which I will write more about soon.  Now that it is actually raining during our rainy season, the pictures will be more interesting.

* My work is commonly described as data infrastructure. IMHO, my work is fascinating, but it's not fodder for this blog. Read my work blog for more about that; the link is on the right.


  1. I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that a high proportion of the bridges in the USA were near or past their useful life. Apart from the danger of catastrophic collapse,and loss of life, there's also the the prospect of no bridge on a road where a bridge ought to be. Things can really grind to a halt when the infrastructure goes down.

    There's no data for this for my country (Australia), but it really got me thinking.

    There's no such thing as a set and forget system, but we don't always (or even often) provide all the scrutiny and maintenance these complex systems need to keep going. It's a sobering thought.

    Thanks for your posts, they are always interesting - but especially the data/information ones.

    1. @Galicia Bridge life is a really scary problem due to climate change. Bridges are rated by the # of freeze and thaw cycles they can safely endure. As northern US cities warm so that their daily winter highs reach above freezing, they endure daily freeze and thaw cycles.

      Road maintenance costs are exceptionally high in CO in large part because average daily highs are always above freezing while daily lows are below freezing almost half the year (at elevations where most Coloradans live.) The rest of the country is going to need to prepare for CO-style daily freeze and thaw cycles.

      That 50 yr bridge may become a 20 year bridge due to climate change, regardless of whether you believe in it.

  2. I'm glad to read a new post. Thank you. I've missed your voice and ideas.

  3. And lets not forget the people who maintain those sewage lift stations. My older son worked for a year for a water & sanitation district to save $ for college. He often had to work in a lift station to fix problems. The job magnified for him the importance of education. He's now a prominent New England attorney. He, and the rest of my children, worked their own ways through college and grad schools.

  4. I am glad you are posting, I miss your thoughtful and well written ideas. I thought about you when I saw that out "POTUS" had banned some government employees from posting. I hope you were not in that group.Keep sharing your thoughts.


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