Historic steam plant gets 21st century light switches

GTSP Knife SwitchesTurning on a light in our homes and offices is easy. We flip a switch, turn a dial, or push a tab without giving it as much as a second thought.

At the historic Georgetown Steam Plant, located at the eastern edge of Georgetown, it used to be a little more complicated. With its 1906 dual-pole knife switches with exposed contacts, turning the lights on required a trained electrician to flip multiple switches in separate locations.

All that is in the past now, after a team of project managers, electricians and a historic preservationist came up with a creative upgrade that respected the plant’s history.

Earlier this year, Capital Projects Coordinator Raul “Pepe” O’Baya, Historic Resource Specialist Rebecca Ossa, Crew Coordinator Ed Richards, Electrician Constructors Ben Crum and Ben McDonald, and Apprentice Andrzej Planeta, put together a plan for preserving the original equipment in place, while providing a safe and code-compliant means to turn on the lights.

The project was challenging since the historic panels were not standardized like today’s panels. Not all were installed at the same height or with necessary clearances, and not all switches or later alterations/additions were labeled.

Staff drilled new conduit cgtown panelonnections through the side of the historic wood panels. They rerouted conduit runs, and reduced or split them to eliminate unnecessary clutter. They placed boxes in areas that were easily accessible. The boxes were left unpainted, to go with the utilitarian industrial interior of the steam plant, and new black switches were used as a nod to the vintage dark Bakelite switches of old.

The project was completed in mid-September 2014. Now, City Light staff visiting the building can just ‘flip the switch’ to illuminate the interior of the plant. And side by side, the historic and new switches give us an opportunity to examine the steam plant’s technological changes through time, without the need to travel far.

About the Georgetown Steam Plant

Built in 1906 by the Seattle Electric Company on 18 acres of land along the Duwamish River, the plant stands today as a reminder of the era of electrification of America’s cities, of technological innovation through the development of the vertical Curtis steam turbine, and its use of reinforced concrete construction, a method advocated by Frank B. Gilbreth, an early 20th century efficiency expert.  For more information about the plant please visit:  http://www.seattle.gov/light/georgetownsteamplant/