Beneath the streets of Barrow


I stayed for just one day more,

Learning utility’s lore,

     Three fathoms beneath

     Cold Barrow’s streets

I toured the great Utilidor

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Avoiding burnout, I’m taking a sabbatical while my one-year non-compete clause winds down, having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places. I just finished an assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.  I’m on my way home, I got the material for this post on Monday.

Barrow, Alaska, sits on permafrost.  This singular fact dominates human attempts to make infrastructure.

Buildings rest on stilts; if heat from the building melts the permafrost, it turns to mush and the building collapses.  A few buildings get by without pilings by using heat diffusers, ten foot metal columns with radiator fins at the end, which suck heat from the ground and dissipate it into the air.

Twenty-first century American buildings need to address the problem of getting water in and out.

In most cities, pipes conduct water to the home and sewage away.  Such a scheme in Barrow would either freeze the pipes or melt the permafrost.

Three places (one site each in Alaska, Mongolia, and Russia) have opted to build Utilidors to solve the problem.

Before the Utilidor, delivery trucks brought fresh water, and a honey bucket service took care of the waste.  In 1984, Barrow Utility and Electric Co-op, Inc (BUECI) formed, to manage and maintain the Utilidor built by the North Slope Borough (Alaska has boroughs rather than counties; the NSB is the large municipality in the world, with an area the size of Wyoming and a population of 7500).

The BUECI building stands less than a block from the hospital; I took Monday off so I could tour the facility.

The BUECI building in Barrow. The snow, not added for effect, occurred naturally.

In an immense public works project, a lagoon was dammed, and a water treatment facility built.  The streets of Barrow were plowed out and dynamited to a depth of eighteen feet.  With much expenditure of hand labor, 2×6” boards were bolted together side by side to form a trapezoid six feet high, five feet wide, and three miles long; it houses plastic pipe, which doesn’t corrode, leach, or form slime deposits.

The author in the Utilidor. The top pipe conveys water out, the next one water back, and the bottom one moves sewage. Note the wooden ceiling; like the walls, constructed of 6x6" boards bolted together so that they are seen end-on.

Keeping 1.5 million gallons of water from freezing  in two above-ground water tanks with an enormous boiler, BUECI sends water out at 60F (15C) and brings it back at 50F (10C).  The water doesn’t freeze because it circulates right to the point where it interfaces with the user.

It took me time to fathom the concept of circulating water.  Most municipal systems maintain pressure in a giant system of pipes, drawing water off from that system is much like dipping out of a lake.  Turning on a tap in Barrow is more like taking water from a stream. 

To use a physiologic analogy, the water in Barrow circulates like blood in the body, going out in arteries, coming back in veins, and removed from A-V fistulas. 

Sewage (in physiologic terms, analogous to lymph) drains back via gravity to a pumping station which sends it to the treatment plant, a few miles outside of town on Cake Eater Road.

The Utilidor also carries gas, electric, and fiber-optic cable lines.

Easy to work on, easy to service, the Utilidor has paid for the initial large expenditure with saved labor costs.

I had such a great time on the tour!

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2 Responses to “Beneath the streets of Barrow”

  1. CHARLIE MILES Says:

    I love to understand how things operate even though my unmechanised mind stops at the mechanical pencil and at that my wife sometimes wonders!

    Thanks for an interesting report!

  2. walkaboutdoc Says:

    Thanks. I think you would have liked the tour.

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