The recent winter storm that dropped temperatures below freezing could have resulted in serious losses for the University of New Mexico if not for the extraordinary efforts of the Physical Plant staff.
As the mercury fell, problems arose immediately. Although PPD previously set night time temperatures in all buildings above the energy conservation setback, and had staff on-hand during the night to walk the buildings to look for problems related to the cold, not all damage was prevented.
A frozen coil on the 3rd floor of Mesa Vista Hall caused water damage on the 1st and 2nd floors in one wing of the building. Elsewhere, a coil froze in Castetter Hall, but the problem was caught before it did major damage. A water pipe in the visiting artist apartment above Tamarind Center broke and water flooded onto the presses below.
At Clark Hall, a copper fire suppression pipe split open as the water inside froze. Other problems at the Health Sciences Center on the north campus caused damage as pipes burst. At least a dozen leaks popped up at the Student Residence Center and another pipe broke underground between Humanities and Ortega Hall. The Student Union Building suffered damage in a meeting room on the 3rd floor. And serious problems in the men's and women's restrooms at University Stadium will require major repair work when the weather warms.
Custodians, trades workers and service techs were all called in overnight on Wednesday to address various problems. Accountants, administrative and work control staff were pulled out of bed to handle emergency service orders to allow vendors like Service Masters to begin drying and cleaning and Donner Plumbing to begin work on the pipes. The grounds staff kept buildings accessible by cleaning entrances and sidewalks.
"This could have been catastrophic, but it wasn't," said Physical Plant Director Mary Vosevich. "Because our dedicated and committed staff came in during the storm and stayed to patrol the buildings and watch for problems, most leaks were caught before they could do serious damage."
Last Wednesday afternoon technical staff at Ford Utilities realized one of the three boilers used to generate steam for heat was faltering due to the low gas pressure from New Mexico Gas Company. Staff watched closely as temperatures fell in building after building.
Normally steam produced by one boiler is enough to heat or cool buildings on main campus, but frigid air from a dangerous winter storm pushed the capability of the system near its limit. A strategic planning meeting was called and the group concluded that switching to diesel fuel was needed for the two boilers to allow temperatures in the buildings to bounce back to normal settings.
Physical plant employees worked throughout the weekend to try to keep ahead of new problems. At 6 a.m. Saturday morning, custodian Pete Ramirez, decided to check the four libraries he cleans. The university was closed because of a statewide gas emergency, but Ramirez knew he needed to check for burst water lines. He quickly found a problem in the southeast corner of the Zimmerman Library basement.
The area houses staff offices for Collections and Acquisition Services and Cataloging and Discovery Services and water was pouring from a line that came apart at a hose bib outside the building and was leaking into the library.
Ramirez called for help and Physical Plant trades persons and custodians along with Service Master responded with drying and extraction equipment. About 30 staff members have been temporarily relocated, and three group study rooms in the basement are closed while the carpet is dried and the walls examined.
Albuquerque dodged snow and ice from the latest winter storm this week, but the unusually cold has physical plant staff again walking the buildings, searching for the next leak that might turn in to a major disaster.
Vosevich says this long stretch of unusual cold has her staff stretched to the limit. The extra hours and personnel needed to monitor buildings and patch water line breaks has been hard. It's been difficult to rotate shifts easily because the physical plant staff has nearly 70 fewer workers than it did three years ago when the university began cutting budgets in earnest. A hiring freeze prevented bring on new workers to replace those who left.
"We've been able to stay nearly even with the problems because the staff that is still here know their buildings well and are able to anticipate where problems might occur," Vosevich said. "Our staff has really done an extraordinary job. They care for these buildings like they own them."
This week temperatures dropped again to single digits, but Physical Plant staff continues to patrol buildings throughout the night and working to prevent new water line breaks.
Slide Show of Damage in Zimmerman