Fireproofing Utility Infrastructure

The numbers are staggering. In a typical year more than 50,000 wildfires burn across the United States, mostly in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). In 2020 wildfires destroyed more than 10 million acres at a cost estimated between $130 billion and $150 billion, according to AccuWeather. The human cost, when lives are lost and thousands of businesses and homes go up in smoke, is immeasurable. With the West embedded in a drought of historic proportions in 2021, there’s a good chance that those numbers will surge even higher. As of July 23, there were 36,172 fires reported in 2021, compared with 29,983 in 2020. Nearly 2.7 million acres have already been consumed by fire this year.

While there are many natural and manmade causes of wildfires, overhead utility lines account for up to 10% of wildfires in California, where an estimated 1,900 fires in the past six years have been blamed on power lines, including some of the state’s most high profile and deadliest disasters.

Even before the start of summer 2021, a heat wave exacerbated by the drought triggered triple digit temperatures, forcing utility companies into issuing “flex alerts” to manage surging energy demands. The National Predictive Services unit at NIFC anticipates “above normal significant fire potential” through the summer, fueled by drought-ravaged timber and grasses.

One solution? Burying utility lines and above-ground utility infrastructure. While it may be expensive in the short run, burying vulnerable utility equipment and protecting utility components with precast concrete structures can help fight the devastation of wildfires in the long run, according to Tyler Haack, Jensen Precast Vice President of Operations.

“It’s much safer for a lot of natural disasters, and not just fires,” Haack says. “Obviously with natural disasters, underground infrastructure will be better able to handle those situations.”

Buried utility infrastructure can be particularly effective to protect lives and property in urban and semiurban environments, which is why in new developments critical utilities such as electrical and communication lines are typically located underground.

Southern California Edison has been moving underground in recent years to protect against earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters, along with overall aesthetics, Haack says. Pacific Gas & Electric’s recent announcement that it plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines confirms that moving utility structures underground in vulnerable regions may be the best plan for the future, even though the conversion will cost an estimated $15 billion to $30 billion and will take years to complete.

When utilities go underground, concrete is the ideal protective material.

“Concrete is a more robust product in general,” Haack says. “You’re going to have a very durable product in terms of fire, in terms of earthquake resistance, and in terms of the structural longevity of the product itself. It’s resilient. You see this in different industries, not just the electrical world.

“Take, for example, plastic pipe versus concrete pipe, and the resiliency of concrete in fires. There have been multiple situations where the entire plastic pipe has melted away in a fire, and you’ve got a concrete pipe right next to it that stays strong and sturdy throughout that whole timeframe. Resiliency is the biggest benefit.”

Precast products for underground utilities come in a broad range of sizes depending on the project needs. Electrical utility equipment enclosures can be as small as a standard 10”W x 17”L x 12”H handhole or as large as the recent 10’W x 30’L x 134”H vault installed for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District by Jensen Precast.

“It depends on the utility, the specifications, and what equipment they are trying to put in the ground,” Haack says. “A lot of time it’s equipment, it’s not just lines.”

While urban and semiurban areas may be the most crucial spaces for burying power lines, rural areas would benefit from precast concrete power poles to add resiliency to the grid when they replace wooden creosote-treated telephone poles.

Wherever it is used, the resiliency of precast concrete makes it an optimal choice for fireproof, sturdy, long-lasting structures that can help protect valuable utility infrastructure and keep the power flowing when natural disasters strike.

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