Lurking behind the upscale brick facade and classical stone columns outside walls are “widowmakers.”
More than 180 of these widowmakers – outdated electric transformers with lots of volts but few safety controls – are scattered across the campus, converting 45 miles of 13,800-volt cable into usable electricity that powers buildings across the campus.
Jack Baker, the Director of Operations and Maintenance for Facilities Management, bluntly described the transformers as “exposed systems” in locked rooms, saying “if you touched it, it would kill you.”
In fact, outdated electric equipment did lead to a death in 2002. University electrician Kurt Tassche died when an old switchgear caused an electrical panel explosion in an electrical closet. Though the piece of equipment was different, the problem was the same – old equipment causing hazardous work conditions.
Few people have keys to the dangerous electric closets. They have been warned they need to turn the entire electric system off before opening the closet door, lest they run the risk of being electrocuted.
“Over the years, I’ve built up tremendous admiration for those people doing the dangerous job that takes tremendous skill,” Baker said.
Robert Riesner, the Manager of Electrical Services at the university, said he doesn’t really think about the danger when working in the widowmaker. “It’s second nature because I’ve been doing it for awhile,” he said. “I don’t think twice about it.”
But other facilities employees are quite concerned, even if Riesner has adapted to his hazardous work environment. Utilities Asset Administrator Dave Cosner described the closet as “something out of Frankenstein.” He said there are newer electric transformers that are safer and more efficient, but they can cost anywhere from $45,000 to $75,000 each.
Baker said updating systems to newer technology was a “huge, huge priority.” “We are getting rid of them as soon as we can,” he said.
But the high cost, as well as the length of the safety precautions involved, has ensured that the widowmakers aren’t going away. The university has only upgraded about 20 of the transformers in the past five or six years, with about 190 still posing a threat to workers.
But to fix the problem, facilities workers would need to turn off the power to an entire building, which they said they can’t do because the university is short on classroom and office space to begin with. As a result, the must renovate the electric system in phases.
Facilities works around research, schedules, special events and holidays, which makes the cost of labor go up for the university because they have to pay overtime.
“There’s always a reason you can’t take a building down,” project manager Brad Fiske said.
One of the buildings currently being renovated is the Animal Sciences building. The project is scheduled to last until 2014, but Cosner said the 6-year project could be an 18-month project if the university could renovate the entire building at once.
It’s not just important to update the antiquated equipment because it is dangerous, Riesner said. It also impacts how well the building functions. The old transformers are found in the buildings constructed during the 1940s and 1950s, which means they were built to simply turn lights on and off – not to power computers or air-conditioning.
Next on the list of replacement buildings is the engineering lab behind Martin Hall, the Bioscience Research building and the Administration building.
But Cosner said the projects could get held up due to financial constraints, leaving Riesner and his coworkers in an unsafe position.
“We don’t have the budget to do repair work,” Cosner said. “The funding stream makes our job most challenging.”