Can you help me identify a piece of infrastructure I found in Detroit?
March 9, 2013 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I was looking around in a semi-abandoned industrial area in Detroit today when I found an unusual looking piece of infrastructure on the side of the road. It consists of a cabinet with an electric feed, an antenna, and no other obvious openings. There were a couple signs on the cabinet, and something inside was making intermittent motor-type noises. Audio, video, pictures, and a maps link are inside. Please take a look if you think you might be able to figure out what this thing is!

When I first walked by this thing, it was not making any sound. While looking at it, it started making noise so I got out my phone and made a video so as to capture the sound:

If you turn it up, you can hear it quite well. Whatever the running equipment is, it shuts off 12 seconds in.

Here is a picture showing the entire cabinet and its antenna.

Here is a picture showing the front of the cabinet, with the signs on it.

And here is a picture of two of the signs up close.

This is a Google street-view image of the cabinet. If you zoom out, you can see its location and the surrounding neighborhood on map or satellite view.

The signs on the cabinet read:


"W. Jefferson & McKinstry"
FREQ-60HZ -41.85 AMPS

"Multiple sources are provided and each should be disconnected for servicing"

If anyone has any idea what this equipment might be, I sure would be interested to hear it! Thanks in advance.
posted by Juffo-Wup to Technology (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea what it is, but the noise (both running, and the "whsssh" when it stopped) reminded me of an air compressor. Don't know if that helps narrow things down at all.
posted by HermitDog at 2:00 PM on March 9, 2013

The huge switch, the meter, and the reference to "multiple sources" suggest that this is a demarcation point where power is provided to a building from the local utility, and that the building also has a generator or some other form of backup power.

The metal plates on stand-offs attached to each side are probably to shield the box itself from direct sunlight and thus reduce internal temperature. My guess about the noise is that there's a small air compressor pulling outside air in through a filter and releasing it into the cabinet to maintain positive pressure and circulation. This and the antenna suggest that someone has gone to a lot of trouble to protect a piece of sensitive electronics that needs to be housed at the demarc for some reason. I wonder if it's meant to provide notification to the building's owner when the power from the street goes up or down, or to tell them how much current they're drawing from the utility?
posted by contraption at 2:09 PM on March 9, 2013

For what it's worth, all of the buildings immediately adjacent to this piece of equipment are abandoned and have been for many years, so it seems unlikely to me that this equipment would still be running if it is part of their power supplies.

The air compressor for filtered or pressurized air is an interesting theory though!
posted by Juffo-Wup at 2:11 PM on March 9, 2013

I am going to guess that it marks the junction of the public power line to an underground cable providing electrical service to the warehouse or whatever it was. The first photograph shows a little bit of the meter. If it was something used by the power company itself there would be no need for metering.

The antenna may be something that provides a radio feed to the power company of the level of usage.
posted by yclipse at 2:11 PM on March 9, 2013

Hey, I ride my bike past this place often.

In-Land Technologies appears to be an electrical engineering firm. They've got an office in Taylor, you could probably contact them there. Might be worth noting that the Mistersky Power Station, where all the (inadequate) electricity for Detroit's public lighting is generated, is just a couple blocks from there, I am betting it has something to do with street lighting. But I really don't know. I do know that several of the industrial buildings on the north side of the street there are occupied and active during the week.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2013

Is power run underground in this area? I think underground high voltage lines are often pressurized to keep out water.
posted by contraption at 2:14 PM on March 9, 2013

I do know that the industrial buildings on the north side of the street there are occupied and active during the week.

Oh, really? Interesting! In that case, I retract my claim that they are abandoned. Perhaps this does have something to do with them after all!

It is my understanding that Mistersky station has been closed since 2010 when the city decided to buy all its power from DTE instead, otherwise I would have strongly suspected it of having something to do with the station. Perhaps it still does; who knows.

[end-of-threadsitting, i promise]
posted by Juffo-Wup at 2:15 PM on March 9, 2013

While I can't any give specific information, my experiences in investigating pieces of random infrastructure have lead me to the general conclusion that if it can't be identified as telephone, electrical, or cable (and this definitely does not seem to fit in either of those categories), then it's probably water or sewer related. Unfortunately, water hardware seems to be pretty diverse, so it can be hard to pin down.

The other tip-off is that water infrastructure often has a radio link to a monitoring station, as indicated here by the antenna.
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:19 PM on March 9, 2013

But why is this thing drawing 40 amps? If it was doing some kind of water handling, I'd expect a larger structure with shutoff valves and whatnot. This seems entirely electrical.

Based on the proximity to the petroleum handling stuff in the area, my vote says the pump is pollution sampling equipment.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:26 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

To the contrary, kiltedtaco, I think the presence of a standard-issue smart meter on the exterior of the box is very clear indicator that this thing is connected to the electrical utility, and further that it is a point of demarcation between the utility and a customer. It's possible that the customer in this case is another utility, but I think it's likely to be the building across the street.

A simple test would be to return there on a weekday with some bolt cutters so you can cut the padlock off the big switch and turn it off, then see if anybody comes out of the building to yell at you. (Alternately you could check the meter and see if it's drawing a lot more on weekdays.)
posted by contraption at 2:28 PM on March 9, 2013

Actually I believe the active industrial buildings are further down Jefferson, a couple blocks or so. That one directly across is not active.

Another possible clue: The plot of vacant land on that same side of the street, closest to the box, is owned by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Could there be something underground there?
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 2:31 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a Detroit Water and Sewer District "Flow Regulator", or more precisely, the above-ground part of it. You can see all the manholes in the road where the actual infrastructure is. See this big PDF, page 2-44 has a description of a flow regulator and the map on the following page even points out B035. My understanding of the PDF is that detroit has a combined storm/sanitary sewer system, and during periods of heavy rain that would overload the sewer system, the flow regulators allow some of the sewer water to be discharged into the river. It requires power because it's powering a big valve underground, and you need to have a power shutoff available to the power company above ground.

The real test of this is if you can find B034 or B036 a block or two up and down the street.
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:33 PM on March 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think kiltedtaco has it. You can find these boxes leading all the way down W. Jefferson to the main sewage treatment facility. There's one at Morrell, Dragoon, and probably more the further down you go.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 2:38 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, great find! That's gotta be it.
posted by contraption at 2:42 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, thanks! That was a much faster and more specific answer than I expected to get! Did you find that via web searching alone, or did you have inside knowledge? :)

As a side note, there are some really interesting (and sort of disturbing) facts in that PDF you found. Notably, that 36% of sewer flow on a dry day comes from water leaking in to the system (as opposed to from residences, businesses, and industrial buildings).

Also that little note about rainfall events exceeding 0.3" usually causing untreated sewage overflows into the river was interesting. I knew that type of thing happened during heavy rainfall events in combined systems, but I didn't know it took so little rain to trigger it.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 2:59 PM on March 9, 2013

No knowledge of DWSD until today, just some guesses based on previous experience with roadside infrastructure. These types of questions are really fun. Nice of DWSD to put such detailed information online.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:19 PM on March 9, 2013

The more disturbing thing to me is that a major American city still relies on CSOs. See the Wikipedia site. Without separating sanitary sewers from storm sewers, this system regularly discharges human waste and other sanitary sewage into the Detroit River and from there to Lake Erie and points east. My town switched over to a separated sewer system some 25 years ago.
posted by yclipse at 4:51 AM on March 10, 2013

Chicago has its Deep Tunnel to combat this problem, but it's not due for completion until 2029, yclipse. Milwaukee has a system that's only achieved two of three planned phases thus far. It looks like Detroit is the single largest municipal source of Great Lakes pollution [pdf] now, but it's reduced that by 80% since the 90s; its own deep tunnel project stopped construction in 2009, though.
posted by dhartung at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2013

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