The Magic Infrastructure

The Sewer Urchin — The Apotheosis of Cool

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

I still recall when I was too young to reach the kitchen faucet. I would have to ask my mother to draw a glass of water for me to drink, and wait to grow. I grew up with access to water on demand. I could flip a switch and summon light. The house was warm in winter and cool in summer. The seemingly most important of all the things which provided comfort, was the ability to turn on a television. I took it all for granted as much as there would be oxygen in the room for my next breath. Indeed as far as I knew, it was all based on magic—without cost to anyone.

One Winter the twin lead cable from our television to the antenna on the roof snapped in an ice storm. The image on the television screen disappeared and was replaced with “snow.” The name seemed very ironic. It would be a couple of weeks before the ice on the roof melted sufficiently and allowed my father to reconnect the antenna. Life without television had become unthinkable, and its absence almost unbearable. It was my first experience with the loss of “infrastructure.” The failure began to make me curious about the origin of water and electricity. When I truly realized that somewhere coal was burned to create steam, which in turn rotated an electric generator, and provided electricity it surprised me that it was available 24 hours a day. But like many Americans, I began to take it all for granted and gave it little thought.

My Grandfather had a small cabin in the backwoods of Montana where he often spent weekends. The cabin was made of logs and only had a wood stove, and cabinets for food storage. The nearest electricity was 27 kilometers away. An outhouse was conveniently located about 10 meters from the cabin. We obtained water from a nearby creek. It was quite an adventure with wildlife all around, the smell of lodge pole pine in the air, and the multitude of stars one would see in a night sky without light pollution was sublime. A single gas mantle lantern illuminated the interior where we both read books into the night.

It was all very pleasant, but after a couple of days without a shower, or running water, or indoor plumbing, or electricity, or a telephone, it was nice to know I could quickly return to a home with modern infrastructure. The weekends offered solitude and relief from the modern pace of life, but also provided considerable respect for why our ancestors created infrastructure in the first place.

As a boy, I survived an F5 tornado passing over my grade school building. When I was evacuated, not long after the tornado had passed, the phone lines, power lines, trees and all the infrastructure of the small town in which I resided was devastated. There was no electricity for 1-2 weeks as I recall. The water wasn’t safe to drink. I stayed at a relatives house while the infrastructure of my little town was re-built. For months afterward the sounds of chainsaws and the movement of utility trucks was a constant.

Path of F5 Tornado

My interest in American infrastructure was greatly rekindled when I listened to a lecture by Scott Huler,  and later read his book On The Grid. What intrigued me was how oblivious I was to it all. When most people I know talk about infrastructure, it’s  usually to complain in some way. My Uncle used to quip: “There are two seasons in Minnesota, Winter and Construction.”

Since my youth, I had seen multicolored spray paint on road surfaces, but gave it little thought. Huler provided a “decoder ring” for the colored lines, which are standard throughout the country. Reviewers of Huler’s book have noted with annoyance that it is a book without any illustrations. I can agree with their sentiment, but he provided a useful Infrastructure Rosetta Stone with this graphic:

Click to enlarge

Each color of spray painted line, defines the path of Gas Lines (Yellow), Water Lines (Blue), Sewer Pipes (Green), Electrical (Red), Communications (Orange). When the path enters a lawn, small plastic flags with the same color mark the path across a lawn. White lines indicate the excavation limits. When you see these colored lines appear, you can be confident that construction will follow.

Survey of Australian Subdivision in Metric — Click to enlarge

The colors indicate the area has been surveyed. As discussed in a previous blog, surveying is still done in chains, even though the most important advance has been the use of GPS, which is meter based. The GPS metric units are all converted to chains and feet by the surveyors. When an area is leveled with bulldozers, GPS is again used. Huler’s book illustrates the undisciplined way we use measurement:

“We have an alarm that will flash on the screen if you are getting out of tolerance. I think we have it set at 2/10 of a foot”—that is less than 3 inches. If that’s not enough, there’s a system called Millimeter GPS made by a company called Topcon. “We can measure to the nearest millimeter today.” (page 18)

How about we just use millimeters? The alarm is set to 60 mm, and it’s possible to measure to the nearest millimeter today.

The way we channel storm water has decreased the amount of fresh water that returns to the water table. It instead shoots down storm drains into rivers and ends up in the sea in a short period of time. To mitigate this problem, Civil Engineers have been adding back meanders and have slowed down the flow so that more fresh water is retained. Scott Huler spends a considerable amount of time tracking down the path water takes in Raleigh, North Carolina. Here is how he describes the water flow with imperial units:

A USGS stream meter at the park later allowed me to retrieve only the value of the flow I was wading through: It was about 4/100th of a cubic foot (about a third of a gallon) per second, which is about 20 percent below it’s mean value over the last 12 years.(page 49)

Let’s convert this over to metric and see how it reads:

A USGS stream meter at the park later allowed me to retrieve only the value of the flow I was wading through: It was about one liter per second, which is about 20 percent below it’s mean value over the last 12 years.

The actual value is about 1.13 liters, so he could have also said that or 1130 mL. but the value seems too precise with the caveat of about attached twice in the original, so I just rounded it to a liter. I’m sure Scott Huler reported with values the USGS provides, and until we can change to metric, we will be collectively stuck with multiple inarticulate measurement units. Another example is:

Raleigh gulps as much as 50 million gallons of water per day, which require the intake to suck out 80 cubic feet per second. (page 54)

Which could be written in metric as:

Raleigh gulps as much as 200 million liters of water per day, which require the intake to suck out 2000 liters per second.

Then Huler leads into part of what the thesis of this blog is about:

There are O-rings for hydrants (they all have the same thread; there’s a plan to eventually adopt a nationwide thread so that all the hydrants will have the same connections)……….(page 68)

The National Bureau of Standards was created because of The Great Baltimore Fire which occurred on February 8th, 1904 (1904-02-08). Fire Departments from nearby cities were called, but when they arrived, none of their hose fittings were compatible with those of Baltimore’s fire hydrants, and so the fire kept burning as if they had never shown up. We have had 108 years to solve this problem, but like metric, nothing has happened. Perhaps because it’s all voluntary?

“Together we stand, with shovel in hand, to keep things rolling along” — Ed Norton

The physical infrastructure of the United States is crumbling. This seems to be acknowledged by our citizens, but its implications are not truly understood. Our lives are rich beyond our historical understanding. We have clean water with which we can drink and bathe. We have sewers to remove our waste and waste water. We have an electrical grid which powers all our electrical equipment and natural gas lines which act as an alternative to electricity for cooking and heating. Our communications lines have interconnected the planet. We also have roads, and bridges that allow for transportation, but as Huler points out, a most important part of our infrastructure is in complete disrepair—our railroads.

The era of inexpensive oil is over, and climate change is already accelerating the deterioration of our infrastructure. Most of the world understands this. The obvious response is to build high speed rail in the US so that people may be transported in a more cost effective manner. Transportation is the life blood of a modern economy. If it is not preserved, then an economy will slow and wither. It is important that we construct high speed rail in the US in metric, this will decrease costs for us, and employ Americans to build them, but moreover it would also make our trains ready for sale to international customers. With 95% of the worlds population using metric, it would be foolish to construct trains that required imperial tools for maintenance.

The difference between a nation and a free-for-all is universal access to a common shared infrastructure. The United States has a choice, to rebuild our infrastructure and remain a great nation, or to accept a regression into feudalism with the limit being The World Without Us. The Roman aqueducts and infrastructure did not crumble in a day, and nor has ours. It, like Rome will not be rebuilt in a day either. According to Huler: “China Spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, Europe spends 5 percent.” The US had decreased from 3 percent to an anemic 2.4 percent. In Huler’s words: “People persist in believing that these systems will somehow maintain themselves, expand themselves, improve themselves without anybody having to put anything in.” There seems to be a considerable number of Americans that believe our infrastructure runs on magic, but it doesn’t, it runs on eternal public vigilance and funding.

The cost will be very large. In 2008 The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated we would need to invest at least $2.2 trillion over five years to bring our infrastructure back from the dead. How would taxpayers feel if I told them I could give them a 10-15% discount on whatever amount we spend on infrastructure?—forever. I suspect they would be for it. It is proverbially known that changing the US over to the metric system as part of a plan to rebuilt our infrastructure, would save at least that much in construction costs. Ten to fifteen percent on $2 trillion dollars is a serious savings.

An overhaul of our infrastructure would be a great opportunity to reform our domestic industries. We could implement metric threads and dimensions for the new pipes, standardize sheet metal thicknesses to metric, reduce the number of fasteners we would need by using all metric, and implement other useful reforms. A metric infrastructure overhaul, would create a workforce well acquainted with building in metric. This in turn will allow our international building contractors, who continue to cling to ACSOWM (i.e. inches, feet etc), to directly bid metric construction projects in foreign countries.

A coordinated metric conversion across all American industry during the repair and upgrading of our infrastructure could bring a sense of national unity. We could tap an American esprit de corps with the rebuilding of our infrastructure and society, and reverse the increasing ennui among the public. I can only hope We The People can find within ourselves, the will and drive to engage in this essential undertaking. For as Benjamin Franklin said: “One never knows the worth of water until the well runs dry.” Let’s not wait for that moment to act.

Related Essay:

The Invisible Infrastructure

6 thoughts on “The Magic Infrastructure

  1. It would be great to blanket email this to congress with reply requested and see if even a small percent even care to read it……………………….

  2. An overhaul of the infrastructure means abandoning using wood as a structural building material and instead use cement. Cement buildings resist tornadoes and hurricanes and are still standing when the storm passes. Wood crumbles.

    The second change needs to be placing all wiring underground, so the electric isn’t out for weeks when the storms rip all of the wires down.

    But don’t expect any changes or rebuilding to take place. They never do in countries heading for desolation. First, you must be destroyed, then rebuilding takes place, as you noticed after you local tornado.

    Now, this statement is still wrong for two reasons:

    Raleigh gulps as much as 200 million liters of water per day, which require the intake to suck out 2000 liters per second.

    1.) In hydrology, it is common to use cubic metres. So, it should 200 m^3 and 2 m^3/s.

    2.) Since you stated the volumes were in imperial units, the 50 million gallons would work out closer to 225 m^3, as there are 4.5 L to an imperial gallon, compared to 3.8 L for a USC gallon.

    I don’t understand why you are so bullheaded and refuse to use the term USC for the US, and imperial for countries where imperial was once legal. It is ignorance like this accelerates America’s decline.

    • On your 1st point: With all due respect to any hydrologists listening, this blog is not written for hydrologists — at least not specifically. The Metric Maven is written, first but not exclusively, for those Americans whose consciousness of things metric may be limited to the bottles in which our high-fructose corn syrup and battery acid, the basis of our culture, are delivered. That is, usages appropriate to a professional journal may be less so in a magazine: most of us are content to speak of a runny nose, even if doctors will insist on calling it rhinorrhea. I’d say that liters versus cubic meters, in this instance, is pretty much fielder’s choice: I’m not sure whether to throw to first or second.

      On your 2nd point: The Maven’s illustration is of the obfuscation that results from the careless mixing of incommensurate units — a carelessness which the imperial “system,” however defined, only encourages. How is the argument made any clearer for a digression into which nation’s definitions of said units are in effect? Would it be any less valid if the gallons in question really were “British Imperial” gallons? As defined by the British Weights and Measures Act of 1824? And just how likely is it that any erudite person, reading of gallons consumed in Releigh, North Carolina, would entertain for a moment that these were British Imperial gallons? Did you happen to notice that the argument had nothing to do with British vs. US gallons?

      I see a pattern here: I deduce that you are a linguistic prescriptivist. So am I, in a perverse sense. The linguistic buttons that set me off are not the same that set you off, and vice versa. The great difference between us, I suspect, is that I see this as an idiosyncrasy, while you seem to see it as a virtue. I’m also guessing that the reason the Maven hasn’t responded directly, is that this is all really, really, pointless. Just how does any of this advance the cause of US metrication?

  3. An observation from a European viewpoint.
    Do not expect any encouragement from over here for your efforts to achieve a coordinated conversion.
    Clinging to your own system of measures in the USA may be a threat to your prosperity, but it is an opportunity for the rest of us (including those countries which still have conversion work to do).

    • This is what I tell people all of the time but they don’t want to hear it. Sometimes it even upsets them. Americans can not tolerate the idea that others will use the metric system against them.

      I can not see either powerful and wealthy countries like Germany and China urging the US to metricate. Neither really buy manufactured products from the US, but are able to sell a lot of their manufactured products to the US. The US being non-metric and them selling the US metric made products has not had a negative effect on their sales.

      It has a positive effect on keeping American products out of Europe and the areas of the world that Europe sells to. So, I can see where Europe and China would even try to keep the US from metricating.

      US loss is everyone Else’s gain.

      • It saddens me to read statements like this about countries gaining from the United States staying with US customary units. China realizes it has a good market giving us products that most of us want and can be used with our measurement system. I know it is partly to do with misplaced patriotism. But the comments, I hear is if we fully adopted S I units we would stop being American and the difference that makes us citizens of the United States.

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