$99M project will be most significant U. overhaul in 40 years

Plans would resolve frustrating power, heat and water failures

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Construction crews replace underground heating pipe at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Wednesday, April 11, 2012 as part of a $99 million infrastructure overhaul project.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utility failures are a part of life. But at the University of Utah, power and water failures happen frequently and often last for hours.

Each building on the U. campus spends an average of 16 hours in the dark per year — affecting classes, research and even medical care at University Hospital, said Cory Higgins, director of Facilities Management. Corroded water pipes, 20 years past due for replacement, have caused heating systems to fail and have sent thousands of gallons of super-heated water into the ground and air.

While some repair work is already under way, the university will begin a four-year, $99 million project in July to replace its aging electrical grid and high-temperature water system. It will be the most significant overhaul of the campus infrastructure in 40 years, Higgins said. When finished, the water, heat and power failures that have become commonplace on campus will be "a thing of the past."

Until then, however, Higgins said the campus community should expect more of the same — canceled classes, damaged research, delayed surgeries and geysers of hot steam.

In fact, things may get worse before they get better.

"We started seeing problems in the ’90s and now, 15 years later, it's a disaster," Higgins said.

The director said each year the university makes "band-aid" repairs to the infrastructure, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. When water pipes fail, workers often have to dig for hundreds of feet to first find the problem, and then to locate a section of pipe good enough to weld to.

Among the improvements to the school's infrastructure will be automated systems that will instantly alert facilities staff to the location of a problem, allowing them to make immediate repairs.

"Today we don't know, we basically wait for the calls to come in," Higgins said. "You have to go look for smoke."

The University of Utah was placed among the nation's worst in terms of reliable electricity, according to a 2008 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers study of utility companies.

Kathy Adamson, administrative director for University Hospital, said at least twice a year the hospital experiences a major power outage that impacts the surgery schedule. When power fails, the hospital's policy is to use emergency power only to finish cases that are in progress and treat patients in danger of losing life or limb. Beyond that, incoming emergency patients are diverted to other locations and those who can are forced to wait.

Emergency power also presents unique challenges, she said, with more areas of the hospital relying on ambient light and with personnel using extension cords to connect machinery to power sources. There's also a short window of a few seconds between the time the power goes out and when emergency power kicks on that can be jarring in an operating room.

"It's a lifetime while you're sitting there," Adamson said.

Surgeries, in particular, rely on uniform procedures for safety, she said. While surgeons are trained to perform during emergency power, any change in process or equipment increases the risk for patients. There's also the emotional toll on a patient when surgeries have to be rescheduled, from the anxiety of waiting to coordinating with family who often have traveled long distances.

"I don't think you can ever underestimate the emotional side of that," Adamson said, "especially for a patient when they're sitting in the dark thinking, 'Am I going to be OK?'"

As the project moves forward over the next four years, Higgins said the construction will likely put added pressure on older portions of the system, which are dangerously deteriorated.

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