The Mysteries of the Manhole Revealed

Manholes are everywhere – we drive over them on the roads, walk over them on our sidewalks, but most of us rarely notice them until they inconvenience us in some way. However, we should be aware of the estimated 22 MILLION manholes in the United States, because they play a vital part as the lifelines of our very way of life! No, they are not portals to a secret underground society, and despite what the Saturday morning cartoon depicted, four abnormally large, agile and green karate-chopping teenage turtles won’t spring from them and kick some butt if you’re getting mugged in a dark New York City alley.

These super-hero adolescent reptiles wouldn’t call it a manhole. No, to them, it’s a front door, since they live in the sewers below the manhole. Cowabunga, dude!


Then what is the mystery behind these common abysses dotting our sidewalks? Why do they exist? Manholes are home to uber-important underground infrastructures that play integral roles in our day-to-day routines. Such subterranean networks and systems include:

  • Communications: Imagine going into your office and having no phone, email or Internet service. Telephone lines, cables, fiber optics, switches and other systems that slink beneath our feet handle financial transactions, emergency and government communications, as well as private communications and entertainment.
  • Electricity: More and more urban areas house power generating stations, transmission lines, and other important elements that make up the power distribution grid, in underground vaults and networks.
  • Natural gas and related energy: Subsurface pipelines transfer natural or manufactured gas, as well as gasoline and other petroleum products, through cities as well as many outlying areas.
  • Water supply: Most of the country’s water distribution system, water storage and raw water transport lines are below ground. Potable water is essential to the health and well-being of everyone and used in a wide variety of industrial, business and personal applications.
  • Wastewater and storm water: Most wastewater and stormwater runoff flows through underground pipe systems. Malfunctioning of these systems can be severe threat to the health of the public.
  • Transportation: Underground rail transportation is most common in urban areas, such as New York City or Chicago. In some cities, road traffic is routed substantial distances through subsurface tunnels.


Some cast-iron manhole covers can weigh as much as 300 pounds

The number of manholes and types of infrastructure accessible in each manhole vary by city and are dependent on a number of factors, such as population density, the age of the city, and mix of public and private ownership of underground utility networks. Manhole ownership varies by location, with most providing access to only one or two utilities. In the nation’s largest cities, the opposite is true, as a huge number of manholes provide access to multiple infrastructures. (Which can be problematic in the aftermath of a large storm like Hurricane Sandy in NYC).

Despite our unfettered dependence on the underground networks, manholes still aren’t getting much love. Maintenance isn’t always a priority with these pits of darkness below the asphalt. In some cities, like New York City, they’re often filled with watery muck washed down from the dirty streets above. Unless the muck is toxic, when it’s time for a technician to visit, they’ll be cleaned by a “flush truck,” which flushes water down into the manhole, then vacuums it out so it’s ready to be serviced (from The Works: Anatomy of a City, by Kate Ascher).

C.I.Agent Solutions decided it was time to give manholes the attention and respect they deserve. Soon we will be announcing some clever products and offerings that will provide manholes and vaults with the T.L.C. they need to keep doing what they’re doing, while remaining the pits of darkness they are. So stay tuned …


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