$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

To pay for the upgrades, the university received $35 million from the state Legislature and will issue a $49 million bond. Higgins said an additional $15 million will be required from the state — for a total of $50 million — but the money on hand is enough to get the project under way.

"We need $50 million from the state but we didn't need it in the first year," he said.

Adamson said continued failures are a point of concern. She said the hospital's volume grows each year, putting more pressure on their utility systems and patient schedules.

University Hospital is one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in the state, and Adamson said diverting from the U. can put a burden on other locations like Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.

"If it were a mass injury and you didn't have power, you'd have to divert everything to one site," she said. "That would be very difficult for anyone to do."

Higgins said most of the work will be done underground and out of the way of students, but the disruption of an electrical or water failure can be quite dramatic. Power outages generally require a building to be cleared. In July, a water pipe burst, sending a plume of steam into the air that matched the height of the nearby 13-story Social Behavioral Sciences Building.

While July's burst was extreme, it illustrates the danger of the aging infrastructure. David Quinlivan, associate director of Campus Utility Services, said the water passing through campus is heated to between 350 and 400 degrees and has enough pressure to push through concrete or move a car.

In 2010, 12 workers were hospitalized after hot water filled a tunnel where they were working. The company that contracted those workers sued the U. for negligence and a campus spokesman said Wednesday the lawsuit is still pending.

That accident was not the result of old infrastructure, Quinlivan said. But as the steel pipes underground corrode, smaller leaks of the super-heated water become more frequent. He said the older pipe on campus had an expected life of 20 years — which it has doubled — and the new heavily insulated pipe is expected to last 100 years. The reinforcement allows the piping to be buried shallower, which Qunilivan said will reduce excavation costs when repairs do have to be made. 

On the electrical side, cables have become brittle — especially at substations where connections are made — and have caused frequent power failures that are a thorn in the side of researchers on campus. Joel Miller, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, said power failures have caused students to lose data, setting them back weeks and in some cases months. After an outage, sensitive machinery can take days to be recalibrated and in some cases never turn back on. 

"It's the penalty you pay for high tech," he said. "We just have to eat the time and grumble."

Miller said there are between four and six major power outages each year that put research at risk. He and his staff try to back up as much data as possible but many of the chemicals used in experiments are kept in freezers or oxygen-controlled environments and can be lost if the power is off for an extended period of time. 

"We try to be vigilant but you can never anticipate every little thing," he said.

Qunilivan said the infrastructure has been in need of an overhaul for years, but the problem finally became too much to ignore.

"You can't provide the students with a quality educational experience if they can't go to class," he said.

The project will be rolled out in segments over the next four years to reduce the disruption to campus. Quinlivan said the most at-risk areas of campus have been identified and will be upgraded first.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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