OU’s aging heat pipes steam up residence halls while some students struggle to stay cool

Graphic by CG Graphic Designer Rachel Orr. Arrows denote the direction of steam flow through Ohio University's pipe system. Editor's Note: This graphic was updated on March 30, 2011.

By Emma Dean, CG Science

While students may be familiar with out-of-whack thermostats, Ohio University’s steam distribution system is somewhat of a well-kept secret.  The network of heating pipes beneath the feet of class-bound students provides the majority of residence halls with heat. Its inconsistencies and snaking path explain why some students stay sweaty during the winter months.

OU Director of Energy Tim Strissel said the pipes are like arteries in one’s body, spreading out beneath campus and delivering steam to most residence halls on campus.  If the pipes are arteries, then the heart would be Lausche Heating Plant, which has been providing students with heat since 1966.

The process begins at the plant, located near Factory Street, where coal is fed into boilers to produce about 300,000 pounds of steam per hour, said Michael Gebeke, executive director of OU Facilities Management. Gebeke said the steam cannot be precisely controlled, so, in some spots, the arrival is almost instantaneous from Lausche.

That lack of control means students sometimes take energy-intensive steps to stay cool. Many turn on electronic fans or air conditioners in the middle of winter, using as much power as they might during June. In fact, it is not unusual to see windows open in some dorms during the cooler months.

Students living in South Green’s Front Four residence halls – Pickering, Brown, Mackinnon, and Crawford – can testify to the overly warm rooms due to the rush of steam.

Like the Front Four, Scott Quad and Bryan Hall, both located on East Green, also tend to have higher room temperatures.  These residence halls are located at a piping end which blasts steam to ensure that buildings all along the system receive heat.

Beverley Wyatt, associate director for business operations of Residential Housing said the heat is not always distributed evenly because most of the buildings are old.  While the staffs at Lausche and the housing department try to keep room temperatures between 68 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the system is not always precise.

The system of connecting buildings in order to provide heat is known as a district system, but it is not the only source of heat for campus residents.  Dorms on the far edge of South, such as O’Bleness House and Ewing House, take part in a distributed system, meaning each building has its own boiler.

The tunnels and pipes of the district heating system are unique. Over seven miles of pipes exist beneath the campus, and the pipes are vastly different, varying in both age and diameter, said Strissel.

With the university constantly facing budgetary concerns, the district heating system budgets its need for employees more efficiently.  Lausche Heating Plant requires one staff while each building with an individual boiler requires its own set of employees.

As new buildings such as the Baker University Center are added to the system, so are new pipes. The additions are linked to the nearest vein and not directly to Lausche.

Spread beneath campus like vessels branching on a chart for an anatomy class, the pipes heat student residential life.  Although sometimes a little warm, the system ensures that rooms are not subject to the temperature drops for which Ohio weather is infamous.

One thought on “OU’s aging heat pipes steam up residence halls while some students struggle to stay cool

  1. I lived in Scott Quad my sophomore year, and I used to wake up at night because I would be too hot (during the winter months). Although it is great that the staff keeps the buildings nice and warm, the school should try switching over to distributed systems like in O’Bleness House and Ewing House. What do you think it would cost the school to make such a transition? And how much money would be saved if we switched over? Any ideas?

    I also lived in Adams where I was able to control the heating/cooling in my room, so I never had to open my window/blast the AC/use a fan. Perhaps we need to compare what Adams and another residential building (of a similar size and under the district system) use in terms of energy for heating.

    What an awesome graphic, Rachel!

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