In the summer of 2014, I embarked on a solo backpacking adventure across Northern Michigan. With no one to talk to along the way, my journal became a powerful and necessary companion. I wrote journal nearly every day, sometimes many times a day, to capture the events and insights of my time on the trail or […]
Below our sidewalks, there’s a vast infrastructure that includes electricity, water, sewer, and fiber optics. In a portion of the city, there’s also a network for what’s known as superheated “district steam.”
Most buildings and homes have their own furnace or boiler, but properties on the district steam system connect to a grid that delivers steam directly to their pipes. It’s not so different from the way that most buildings receive electricity from a utility grid rather than having their own internal generator.
District steam is common in dense urban areas with large buildings because a central plant can be more efficient than individual boilers. The current system serves more than 100 buildings in greater downtown, including the GM Renaissance Center, Cobo Hall, the Fox Theater, and Ford Field.
But this type of system is limited for a reason: Heat escapes rapidly as the steam pipes pass by cold external air, so it is not suited for long distances.
Detroit’s system is notable because it is so extensive — with over 50 miles of steam mains — and because it is so old. The system dates to 1903, when it was opened by Detroit Edison Electric Company. It’s also very leaky, as evidenced by all the steam seen rising from city sidewalks and streets.
The leaks are more than a systemic inefficiency. They also bring their own quirky hazards. The thick columns of steam can create blind spots that are dangerous to both drivers and pedestrians. And apparently, enough passers-by have burned themselves on scalding steam, that one local law firm has a dedicated website for personal injury suits from “Detroit manhole cover steam burns.”
Minor perils aside, the steam itself is not all that scary. It is just hot water — not swampy sewer gas or exhaust from the forgotten Detroit salt mines.
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