From raging forest fires on the West Coast to heavy snowfall on the East Coast and bone-chilling cold between, extreme and unpredicted weather patterns this school year have disrupted college classes and tested campus infrastructures.
America’s massive underground facilities network — thousands of miles of cold water and steam pipes and countless energy turbines and air-conditioning and ventilation systems – in spite of relatively few examples, has held up well.
New and proactive approaches to facility operations, marked on many campuses by the disappearance of familiar clouds of steam billowing from grates on campus grounds, sidewalks and streets, help explain why there have not been more instances of weather-related closures.
Maryland’s Bowie State University, with a mix of older and new buildings, “has been able to take a proactive approach to infrastructure maintenance to minimize the risk of system-wide failures,” said Darryl Williford, the school’s director of facilities management, echoing peers at universities elsewhere in the nation.
“We have been doing systematic boiler replacement for several years. We upgrade control panels on heating and cooling systems as part of an energy performance program, resulting in better temperature regulation in buildings,” said Williford.
Bowie, a state-controlled institution, has invested millions of dollars in recent years into an ongoing program of facilities upgrading and maintenance, added Williford.
In Ohio, where The Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus has an underground system built to deliver water, heat and cool air to its 140 buildings, university officials tout a nearly 100-percent successful performance rating of its system, which in an average winter week can generate 500,000 pounds of steam an hour from its natural gas-fired boilers.
Last year, OSU contracted with a private Ohio vendor, ENGIE Services, to manage most of its underground power system and help its department of facilities, operations and development on a variety of projects aimed at energy reduction. OSU began increasingly using private vendors for services to cut time and remove hurdles for hiring and acquiring talent and services.
OSU is part of a growing list of institutions moving away from using coal as a primary source for firing up its heating systems. The change reduces air pollution and long-term core system operating costs while allowing the institution to maintain facility performance levels in all kinds of weather as use fluctuates, school officials said.
Norfolk State University has been winning accolades for its steps to a more environmentally friendly underground. The university no longer has an underground steam pipe system, instead controlling indoor temperatures with a cooling and heating system for each individual building, according to university spokesman Stan Donaldson.
Still, the university had to close its campus for several days during the heavy snow and frigid temperatures earlier this month, said Donaldson. Snow made campus roads impassable, causing dozens of facility maintenance crews to work overtime to quickly clear the snow.
Many colleges and universities across the nation are updating underground networks that service older buildings. Newer systems use noncarbon-based fuels to reduce pollution and operating costs.
Meanwhile, Sonoma State University in California, which saw forest fires destroy the homes of 55 students and 26 faculty last fall, has undertaken efforts to help the university establish a new normal on its 105-building campus, said spokeswoman Shirley Armbruster.
“We were not really used to that kind of weather,” she said.
Physical clean-up continues, from water trucks cleaning ash from surfaces to replacement of all air filters in every campus building. The university also has enhanced mental health services for students and others after recognizing a need for more mental health help for fire victims, said Armbruster.
In the nation’s capital, Howard University is in the early stages of recovering from a series of steam-pipe fractures that forced closure of three major older buildings on campus for the rest of the school year. Some 500 classes were moved to drier and better-heated locations on campus.
Howard officials have not stated the precise cause of the pipe bursts and the steam and mildew damage that followed. They said repair costs could soar above $1-million.