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On 8th Street NW just above the Navy Memorial, there’s a “building” that takes up about half of the western side of the block. The building appears to be a solid block of concrete but has been decorated with some drawings and false windows and doorways to give the impression (although not a very good one) of several row house-type structures. What the hell is it? Why is a quarter-block of prime real estate in downtown Washington devoted to unusable space? What is up with the windows and doorways, some of which look like they’ve been there forever (and the concrete went up around them)?
—Jason Ost, Washington
Scattered throughout the city and nearby suburbs are six buildings with false fronts made to look like residential or commercial locations. Often located in prime spots—like Penn Quarter or Chevy Chase—the false fronts mask Pepco substations.
Rather than hiding behind a barbed wire fence, the substations blend into the neighborhood—even with signs reading “Danger—High Voltage” hanging outside the concrete doorways and Pepco trucks driving in and out.
“Instead of having barbed wire fences in the middle of the city we design them to fit in aesthetically with the neighborhood,” says Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin.
Behind the false fronts, the substations receive power from power plants just outside the city. The substation’s transformers then weave the power through a series of circuit breakers and switches to reduce the 69,000 volts down to 13,000 volts before sending the power out to the neighborhood.
So why not stick substations in unsightly locations where they wouldn’t have to blend in? Location, location, location: Substations can’t be located too far from the neighborhoods they serve.
Every Monday, the ‘Huh?’ Bub takes your questions. Got one?