What is the deal with that @#*&ing downtown steam pipe?

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Three rusty barrels form the steam volcano.

Three rusty barrels form the steam volcano.

By Kristen Alberti
Listen Up, Lansing

For a few years now, as Martha Mello has walked down East Michigan Avenue five days a week to and from work, she hasn’t helped but notice the large steam volcano, as the Lansing Board of Water and Light calls it, coming out of the ground on the south side of the Radisson Hotel Lansing at the Capitol, just past Troppo, a local restaurant.

“I see it every day, so you kind of get accustomed to it,” said Mello, “but I certainly think we could do a better job with it.”

With its stacked rusty reddish-orange barrels surrounded by a small set of thin bars and a “Caution Hot” sign, it’s no wonder that both employees and visitors of Downtown can’t miss the towering steam volcano, not to mention the copious amounts of steam it releases.

According to Stephen Serkaian, executive director of public affairs for the Lansing Board of Water and Light, the steam emerges from the volcano from a cogeneration plant in Reo Town, meaning it produces both steam energy and electricity.

The steam goes through almost 10 miles of underground piping, serving around 185 businesses and a handful of residents in and around the Downtown area. Some of the businesses include General Motors and state office buildings.

Many of the underground pipes are around 90 years old, and there’s a 427-foot length of piping under Michigan Avenue in front of Troppo that dates back to the 1920s, said Serkaian. The volcano has been in that spot for a couple of years and represents a leak in the pipes, which will soon be remodeled.

Steam emanating from the steam volcano.

Steam emanating from the steam volcano.

According to Serkaian, LBWL is paying $1.3 million to renovate this section, using their operation and maintenance budget throughout the summer of 2015.

“After multiple repairs over many decades, we’ve decided to replace the pipes,” said Serkaian. “That project is going to be 427 feet and launched in three phases.”

Phase one will be launched and completed in four days in mid-April. This phase will close part of the traffic circle in front of the Capitol on South Washington and Michigan Avenue.

Phase two will be completed from June 1 through mid-July, closing eastbound Michigan Avenue from just west of Grand Avenue to around the traffic circle, said Serkaian.

Phase three will begin right after phase two is completed in July and will run until the end of September, closing eastbound Michigan Avenue from the traffic circle to the front of the Radisson.

After construction of the new pipes is completed, the leak will be capped, and the volcano will no longer be necessary, Serkaian said.

The steam carries through the sky over trees and buildings.

The steam carries through the sky over trees and buildings.

With all of these street closings, many Downtown businesses and citizens will be affected by this construction; however, Serkaian said the LBWL is doing everything they can to make things as prosperous as possible during this time.

“Unfortunately, for Troppo, and Tavern and Tap just across the street, it’s an inconvenience, but we’ve been working with those businesses,” said Serkaian. “We’re gonna make sure that customers and other downtown patrons know that businesses will be open during construction through way finding signs, social media, and regular media.”

Not only is this a concern for Lansing dwellers, but some people think the rusty tubes are an unpleasant sight in a city that’s trying to look better.

The steam expands to the sky, and reaches as low as the ground when the wind blows, where Lansing patrons can potentially get hit in the face with steam.

The steam expands to the sky, and reaches as low as the ground when the wind blows, where Lansing patrons can potentially get hit in the face with steam.

“I think it’s ugly, and it’s not even painted pretty,” said Mello. “It’s kind of an eyesore for our city, especially when there’s so much action right down here.”

“There are some points when you’re walking and the wind is blowing and you’re walking right though the steam, which is just like hmm this is not good,” said Mello. “And you kind of worry about the health ‘cause of all that going into our air.”

The color of the volcano has faded over the past few years, and has continued to corrode.

The color of the volcano has faded over the past few years, and has continued to corrode.

Another issue Lansing employees see with the volcano are the destitute crowds it attracts.
“Homeless people love it,” said Troppo server Adam Purdue. “In the winter when it’s warm, they just like to huddle around it.”

However, since the pipe renovation will be commencing within a matter of weeks, Serkaian is sure these problems will be solved shortly.

“We receive occasional complaints about it, said Serkaian, “but we explain that the process to replace those pipes is complicated and it takes many months to plan, and they understand that we’re working on it and by the end of the summer that section of steam pipes will be completely new.”

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