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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An exclusive look inside the secret pump station disguised as a house on Wade Avenue

Posted by on Wed, Feb 5, 2014 at 5:30 PM

click to enlarge Outside: a seemingly traditional house - PHOTO BY AVERY HOCUTT
  • Photo by Avery Hocutt
  • Outside: a seemingly traditional house
There is a house at 3215 Wade Ave. It’s an ordinary, non-descript one-story brick affair, flanked by trees. Seen from the front, the house has two columns in front of a white door, and four windows flanked by eight black shutters. 

Only, the doors can’t be unlocked.

There’s no driveway out front.

And if you to listen very carefully at night, you can hear strange, heavy noises emanating from the house, as if it were breathing.

The “house” is actually a false front for one of the 20 pump stations scattered throughout Raleigh. Concerned that the station would disrupt the beauty of the surrounding neighborhood (picturesque stone houses with lots of ivy), in 1978 the city decided to disguise it as a livable residential structure. For decades, people drove by it with no clue that it wasn’t a real house.

That is, until a Reddit user broke the story on Nov 19, which was picked up by WUNC, which broadcast it on Jan 16 with an accompanying Youtube video. It has more than 900,000 views by now.

Perry Allen, employee of Raleigh’s Capital Improvement Office and “star” of the video, did not seem thrilled with the media attention the place is getting. A mild-mannered, introverted guy, Allen is concerned with one thing: doing his job. He didn’t sign up to be talking to camera crews (or me), but Raleigh’s Public Information Officer doesn’t know as much about the pump station as he does, so he wound up giving the tours.

So, what’s inside the secret pump station on Wade Avenue? Mainly, three enormous pumps and lots of pipes. For reasons unknown—hip 70’s spirit, possibly—all of it is painted sea foam green.
click to enlarge Inside: a utility pump station - PHOTO BY AVERY HOCUTT
  • Photo by Avery Hocutt
  • Inside: a utility pump station

“We use each pump at different times to give each one some exercise,” said Allen. During peak times—morning, when people are showering and getting ready, and evening when people are cooking dinner and doing the dishes—they run the big one at 25 million gallons a day. They also rely on it during the summer and in March, when they flush out all the lines.

Outside, Allen shows me the windows panes: fogged glass backed by brick. On the side of the house, one of the windows disguises a huge HVAC vent. And if you stand directly on the front steps and look up, you’ll see another HVAC vent over your head.

In the back, a brick courtyard encloses a 2400-volt transformer and a generator, installed after Hurricane Fran blew out the power lines in 1996. Now, if another storm wipes out the lines, the generator can run the water pumps for two or three days without power.

As we walk back to our cars, our breath fogging in the frigid weather, Allen tells me more about the pump system, the pressure zones, the elevation, the MGD required to run the city and surrounding towns, and the lines used to pump it, but it’s hard for me to keep up.

Allen pauses. “A lot of people, when they turn their faucet on, they don’t have any idea how it gets there, other than there’s pipes in the ground,” he says. Then he smiles. “That’s why you’re supposed to leave it up to us.” 

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