One trend in commercial electrical distribution is the undergrounding of electrical wiring and systems. Many municipalities and residential areas are also opting to relocate electrical wiring beneath the ground. Putting electrical wiring beneath the ground has a number of benefits. However, underground electrical wiring also comes with its own set of cautions and costs which need to be taken into an account.
Consumers often ask questions about decisions made by civil engineers responsible for their communities. Often, these questions are interspersed with criticisms of decisions made. For example, a homeowner who is unhappy about the way the overhead electrical lines look might complain that the engineers should just put everything underground. A different consumer might complain about the amount their local government has spent in undergrounding utilities. For all involved, a deeper understanding of the reasons an engineer might choose either method might allow them to refine their criticisms. All of us have civic responsibility to voice our vision for our community, and to contribute in the decision making for our area. However, it is difficult to offer a relevant opinion if you do not understand the nuances involved in the decision making. One article cannot give a deep understanding of all of the considerations which must be undertaken when making a complicated decision. However, I do hope that this can serve as a starting point for discussions. Understanding a few of the basic concerns when deciding between overhead or underground utility lines can help you to begin to ask the right questions when you are participating in your communities.
For cities and electrical companies, deciding whether or not to put electrical wiring underground is a matter of weighing the costs and benefits of using an underground wiring system, or a traditional overhead electrical system. Overhead electrical systems have a number of benefits. First, they are relatively cheap. You only need to dig a few holes, install cheap poles, and run your wiring. Not only are they cheap to install, but maintenance on an overhead line is substantially cheaper than a buried one. Any issues can be identified fairly quickly, and the repair work can be done without needing to spend extra time digging.
When a problem occurs underground however, finding and fixing the problem can be a much more difficult endeavor. First, the fault must be located. Because the lines are buried, it can be difficult to determine where a problem may have occurred. There may be a great deal of digging involved, just to figure out where the problem has occurred. Thankfully, modern technologies are reducing this burden. Modern electrical installations are including technologies which help operators to locate and troubleshoot any issues which occur. As these technologies improve, it can be hoped that this cost decreases substantially.
Secondly, when troubleshooting underground wiring, you may need to deal with other considerations when digging. Does the line go beneath a major road? If you need to open up a road, there may be considerable construction costs associated with closing the road, opening it up, and then repairing it once the work is done. The difficulty associated with this repair will scale alongside the structures or other utilities which are disturbed while you are conducting your repair.
Underground wiring is not all negatives however. Undergrounding major or minor electrical lines can have several substantial benefits. One of the most obvious benefits is one of aesthetics. Overground lines are often criticized for being ugly, and for destroying views. People are becoming more and more conscious about avoiding marring the landscape with industrial machinery and infrastructure, and so undergrounding infrastructure can do a lot to increase local property values.
A somewhat more substantive benefit to underground utility lines is that they are much less susceptible to damage. Fires, storms, snow and ice, and other natural phenomena are much more likely to damage or destroy overhead lines. So, while they are much less difficult to repair, overhead lines are also much more likely to be in need of repair. Disruption of power and other utility can have other costs associated with them as well. Things like loss of productivity, discomfort, loss of health, and other problems are likely to be associated with customers who have their utility services disrupted. When you are trying to provide value to consumers, it can be difficult to quantify the costs associated with a less reliable infrastructure. Deciding whether to implement overhead or underground utility lines is a decision which should not be undertaken lightly, and should include an in depth analysis of the natural conditions, the economic and financial realities of the area, and any other special considerations relevant to the specific situation of your community.
Get involved with your local community, and talk to the engineers responsible for planning your area. Many of them will be happy to educate you about some of the challenges they are facing, and may also appreciate hearing perspectives from those who are affected by their work.