The University Record, January 28, 1998

A beehive of activity flourishes below the campus walks

Jay Marsh (left), Rick Minton and Dave Pendorf move fittings in the tunnels, demonstrating the cramped space. All photos courtesy Bill Fink, Plant Operations

Joe Fleming (left) and Ishmael Pickelsheimer check out some of the fittings they will put in place.

Mike Klapperich (left) and Jim Reeves team up to repair a pipe.

Ishmael Pickelsheimer demonstrates the dexterity and agility necessary to repair some of the lines in the tunnels. Welding in the space available sometimes leads to some awkward positions.

By Armando A. Lopez
Plant Operations

Ten feet below ground level, in temperatures that often climb as high as 130 stifling degrees, a crew of eight steamfitters and two pipecoverers toils diligently to keep 36 miles of high- and low-pressure steam pipes, domestic hot water lines, and condensate and compressed air lines operating efficiently and safely.

Unseen and unheard by the general public, the men ply their trades in the underground tunnels that crisscross the Central and Medical campuses, in working conditions few people can appreciate. Excessively high heat and humidity, as well as cramped work spaces--tunnel heights rarely exceed six-and-a-half feet, and tunnel widths range from three to five feet--combine with the massive scale of the equipment itself to create a job that is difficult and hazardous. Bill Fink, foreman I responsible for the tunnel operations, understates the situation when he says that most people avoid working in the tunnels. Tunnel assignments require strength, skill and the ability to tolerate some tough physical working conditions.

The tunnel crew focuses primarily on the maintenance of the miles of underground steam and water lines. Daily preventive maintenance assumes a high priority because so many activities and systems rely on them. They comprise the University's utilities "distribution piping," which channels the energy needed to heat and cool campus buildings, support faculty research, power building pneumatic controls, even wash dishes--steam dishwashers are used in the residence halls and the hospitals.

The job is complicated by the fact that the lines cannot be shut down for the required maintenance; they need to function continuously to feed the needs of the campus. The steamfitters also inspect every inch of the tunnels monthly to spot leaks, broken lines or failures in the systems, in order to make necessary repairs before a major failure can disrupt service to the campus customers. Once each year, they also "exercise" all 3,500 valves in the tunnels to prevent them from sticking.

As older equipment fails or becomes obsolete, it is retrofitted or replaced. According to Fink, the tunnel crew completes about 90 percent of new construction and renovation projects in the tunnels. Facilities Planning and Design personnel design the project; Fink estimates the costs of labor and materials to establish or confirm the price of the project and the men then complete it. For example, they are currently replacing bellows-type expansion joints, some as old as 100 years, with newer mechanical ones that will outlast the older joints, and be safer to work around in the long run. To replace the joints, which can weigh 2,000-3,000 pounds apiece, the men have to fabricate support stanchions from eight-inch tubular steel, as well as fabricate and weld the wall and floor anchors that support the joints.

During the time that new construction or renovations are being completed, temporary lines are put into operation to ensure the continuous feed of the utilities. There's never a large window of opportunity to complete the work. Work has to be performed quickly, yet safely and competently to keep the utilities flowing without undue difficulty or delays.

Pride in their workmanship is evident among the tunnel crew members, as is evidence of their abilities. They weld and fabricatepiping with angled offsets; maintain, build and install pumps and relatedequipment. They remove asbestos and rewrap the pipes. The work oftenrequires the use of rigging equipment--chain falls, even wreckers--tomaneuver the large pumps and joints through narrow manholes and thelimited access of the tunnels themselves.

Foreman Bill Fink notes that the crew has worked as a team formuch longer than most of Plant's more formal teams. The men are verysafety conscious . . . they look out for each other, he says. Theircamaraderie and unique esprit de corps finds expression in theirdistinctive way of referring to each other--the Tunnel Rats. The termmay not sound very flattering but it's one that signifies a specialmembership in a special team of hardworking, skilled and dedicatedcraftsmen.

Fink, himself a veteran of the tunnels, proudly notes, "Theaverage person on the campus doesn't see or even know what the men in thetunnel crew do . . . they perform their work unnoticed by most people.But they're a great bunch and they deserve a lot of credit."

The steamfitters on the tunnel crew are: Joe Fleming, MikeKlapperich, Jay Marsh, Rick Minton, Rick Murphy, Dave Pendorf, IshmaelPickelsheimer and Jim Reeves.

Pipecoverers Matt Calahan and Clyde Trapp round out the team.

This article first appeared in the Oct.1997 issueof The Plant Exchange, a newsletter for Plant Operations staff.