College does not properly operate or maintain Lewis Center HVAC Systems

In the past I have written several letters-to-the-editor raising issues with regards to the operation and maintenance of our facilities under Aramark (FRM).  This is another in that series.

I begin with a story from last spring.  In March 2002, I participated in a weekend symposium in the Lewis Center Auditorium.  When participants arrived Friday evening they discovered there was no heat in the auditorium.  I brought the problem to the attention of Security.  Nothing happened – symposium participants shivered for 3 hours in the cold.

Later that night I checked my Lewis Center computer logs and discovered that, not only had the auditorium not been heated, it had also not been ventilated – CO2 levels had risen to 2000 ppm during the evening, more than double that allowed by ventilation standards.  I called Security to find out why they had not responded to my initial request – I was told that the request had been handed off to the nighttime facilities manager.  (I later learned that he had contacted Siemens Controls Systems in Chicago, where someone had examined a computer screen and informed him that the building was operating properly.)  Why do our facilities managers pay more attention to a computer tech in Chicago than a faculty member on the scene?

Further examination showed this was not an isolated incident.  Records showed that the auditorium had been used the entire semester (6-weeks at that time) for scheduled classes without heating or ventilation.  Auditorium CO2 levels had risen above ASHRAE standards on 20-25 occasions.  Students and faculty had complained constantly about the cold but with no satisfaction.  I brought this to the attention of our Aramark facilities managers – it took another week and a few heated (no pun intended) phone calls/emails to resolve the issue.

But this is not the end of the story.  This winter the Lewis Center HVAC operation has been just as erratic.  Restrooms have been largely unheated, scheduled classes have met in smaller classrooms, frequently with no ventilation.  And when the ventilator has run it has often supplied, cold, rather than warm, air.  A few weeks ago the auditorium heat failed altogether.  Classes continued to meet there without any heat from Friday, Feb. 14, through the following Thursday.

These are not energy-saving measures instituted by occupants of that building – Environmental Studies staff/faculty are as frustrated as anyone that the College seems unable to operate the building properly.  Moreover, some of the HVAC problems cause the building to consume more, not less, energy!  Prior to losing heat on Feb. 14 the auditorium had been heated continually, 24 hours a day, though most of Winter Term, though largely empty and unused.  Energy has been used to heat the 1st floor classroom (Rm 102) to 70F constantly this entire semester – it continues to this day, even after brought to the attention of our facility managers in a Feb. 20 meeting.  Has the College financial situation gotten so bleak that we cannot afford to properly operate and maintain this highly visible building?

And while these problems are most evident for the Lewis Center, a building with complicated HVAC systems and continual energy monitoring, similar problems affect virtually all campus buildings.  Wright occupants report HVAC problems roughly once per week.  The heating plant is so understaffed and inadequately trained that they are unable to properly maintain and operate our facilities.  I have great respect and appreciation for our trades’ workers.  But they simply are forced to run from building to building finding temporary fixes to systemic problems that recur the following week.  And often their temporary solution uses more energy than would be the case if they addressed the root cause.  A friend once pointed out to me that poor folks often end up spending more money for household furnishings than wealthier folks – because they can never afford to by good stuff in the first place – so end up replacing it over and over again.  This is the way that Oberlin is now operating its facilities – penny wise, and pound-foolish.

-- John Scofield, submitted to the Oberlin Review, 2003-03-05