Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wasser, Gas

I was drawn to them right away—the curious primary-colored plaques affixed to the buildings in Berlin. Each was a deliberate, yet mysterious typographic composition of letters and numerals, with the occasional word “wasser” or “gas.” Was I unaware of a utilities signage project by Schwitters and Lissitzky?
International Dada Archive, Univ. of Iowa

Of course these found Merz poems actually mean something, and
Dr. Lee D. Han, a professor at the University of Tennessee, seems to have cracked the code.

Dr. Han recently visited Berlin to give a presentation about microscopic simulation and mass evacuation to a group of university transportation researchers. Scroll down to read about the puzzle he so proudly describes solving. He even provides a diagram!

From Professor Han's blog:
I’ll have to really sit down and write more about my short visit to Berlin. But one thing I want to report here is finally having time to solve this little puzzle. Basically, I had noticed these little placards on the side of the streets, on walls, and on poles with a “T” shaped marking typically in the center of the placard and with some numbers all around it. I’ve seen them in Vienna, Budapest, here in Berlin, and later in Sarajevo. I thought instinctively that they have something to do with pipelines, but never had the time to look closely. Well, this time I took the time and figured out that these are markers for the access “hole” for water, gas, hydrant, etc.

The word “Wasser” is water in German, which is not hard. But the “T” in the middle really means, I think, an access point to the water line 2.1 meters from this placard (perpendicular to the face of the placard) and 2.2 meters to the left of the placard. If the access point is to the right, the number would be written on the right side. If it is behind the placard, which is not uncommon, the number 2.1 would be negative.

I think this system must have been around for many a decade and widely employed in many European countries. As utility workers walk or even drive around, they can see these placards and easily identify the access points. There must also be a nice GIS-based asset management system with everyone of these access points inventoried, which is not hard as they are already clearly identified.

I’m sure the simple rules of these placards are common knowledge among utility workers. But it is still interesting to figure them out. As it turned out, everyone I asked along my trip acknowledged that not only they didn’t know what these placards are or how they work, but most of them never even noticed these little colorful markers. Perhaps somewhere on Wikipedia or a website in some other language all this is explained in detail. But this is where you read about it first. :)

Danke Herr Professor!

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