as reported to the [REDACTED] list by
Lee S. Kilpatrick <lee…@B…>
Subject: mother of all grease fires
Date: Fri, 23 Sep 94 17:34:09 PDT
From: Brian Reid [email address lost in the
bog standard forwarding frenzy]
I work in the very center of the city of Palo Alto, in a nice office
building. We are surrounded on every side by restaurants, hotels,
and so forth. But we are a computer company, and so our building ends
up needing a lot of electricity. We use about a megawatt (1 million
In order to deliver a million watts of electricity to an office
building, you need a very large transformer. These transformers are
too big to put on poles, and besides in quaint downtown areas nobody
likes those poles any more. So the transformers are put underground.
The million-watt transformer that powers our office building is
located in an underground vault in the middle of a walkway that leads
to City Hall. The transformer is about the size of a small car, and
the transformer vault is about the size of a one-car garage, except
that the way you get in is to climb down a ladder from the street
level. The top of the transformer vault is well ventilated, because a
million-watt transformer generates a lot of heat.
Several fine restaurants are near this walkway, along with a bank, an
art supply store, and so forth. There’s a lot of foot traffic. This
being California, where it never rains, and this being Palo Alto,
where it is always springtime, the restaurants have outdoor seating
areas that are very popular.
Recently the patrons of one restaurant started to complain that there
was an unpleasant odor in their otherwise idyllic outdoor seating
area. Soon the Health Department was called, and they quickly
determined that the odor was caused by rancid oil that had seeped
into the sidewalk. Further investigation showed that the source of
the rancid oil was overflow from a nearby grating. The grating was
marked “City of Palo Alto Utilities,” so the utility department was
The utility crew quickly discovered the problem. The oil wasn’t
really oil, it was molten deep-frying grease, which was molten
because it was being kept warm by a million-watt transformer. The
entire vault was completely full of used frying grease, about 2000
gallons of it, which was enough to completely cover the transformer.
The heat of the transformer kept the grease from solidifying.
Police quickly figured out what had happened. Every night for quite a
number of years, one of the nearby restaurants had, at closing time,
emptied its fryer into the transformer vault, thinking that they were
dumping it into the storm sewer. It’s quite illegal to dump grease
into a storm sewer, of course, but they probably figured they would
never get caught.
Transformers do occasionally overheat; this is why they are kept in
concrete vaults. If this one had overheated, we would have had the
mother of all grease fires.
Last night they shut off all of the electrical power, pumped out the
hot grease, washed out the vault, and replaced the transformer. It’s
very fortunate that nobody was killed.
Today’s “daily special” menu did not include the usual fried fish.
Edited and converted to HTML by Dan Bornstein,