Saturday, April 20, 2024

Feelings lukewarm for campus heating

By Aleksandra Sidorova

Editor in chief

College staff and students, especially those living in dorms, noticed it took longer for heating to turn on this year. The fluctuating temperatures don’t make it easy on the college either. 

In a written response, Executive Director of Strategic Communications and Marketing Heather Haskins and Assistant Vice President for Maintenance and Operations Tyson Moulton explained how the heating system at SUNY Plattsburgh functions. 

Maintenance and Operations follows the weather forecast and turns the heat on when nighttime temperatures begin to drop. The heating turned on 10 days later than last year.

“In the past, this has been a very successful strategy,” Haskins and Moulton wrote. “This year there were some complications.”

This year’s weather patterns were unpredictable and quick to change. According to AccuWeather, in the month of September, Plattsburgh first saw a heatwave with temperatures in the 80s, then they dropped to rainy 60s. The first week of October, temperatures crept back up to high 70s and quickly fell to the 50s. Since Wednesday, the city has been in the comfortable 60s range, with temperatures due to drop to the 40s next week. 

New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation lists more frequent cold waves and heatwaves as one of the side effects of climate change. Additionally, Haskins and Moulton wrote, all the rain from the summer resulted in excessive amounts of groundwater. Maintenance and Operations also discovered some system issues, which extended a process that otherwise takes several days to more than two weeks.

“We’ve received complaints about the lack of heat this fall and recognize that the strategy that has been successful for years didn’t work this year,” Haskins and Moulton wrote. “We’re working on assessing how we’ll change this for next year. We are also aware of the buildings that are particularly challenging. Most important to us is that the campus knows how much the Maintenance and Operations staff care.”

The Central Heating Plant creates high-temperature hot water, which makes its way to campus buildings through pipes buried in the ground. The water leaves the plant at a pressure of 200 pounds of force per square inch and a heat of 400 degrees — twice its boiling point.

When it arrives at a building, it “runs through a converter that uses the heat to produce either 180-degree water for heating or steam, depending on the building.” 

Most campus buildings are at least 50 years old. The age of the buildings makes it difficult to replace equipment — as such, buildings like Champlain Valley Hall, Hawkins Hall, Saranac Hall and Ward Hall still use steam to heat them in the winter. Steam heating is also harder to control, causing more variability in temperatures across different parts of the building.

When Jessica Lashway, associate registrar, came to work on the morning of Monday, Oct. 23, the thermostat on the wall showed it was 64 degrees in her office on the second floor of Ward. The previous week, Lashway recalled, the reading was 99 degrees.   “I definitely would rather it be cooler and warm up the room with the space heater than have it be almost 100 in here,” Lashway said.

Lashway said she is more “hot-blooded,” so she turned on a room heater, which brought her office to 74 degrees by noon. However, this solution may not be for everyone: Every heater has to be approved by the Heating Plant as they are generally considered fire hazards. 

Noticing the pattern of chilly days, Lashway had brought layers to help keep herself warm on Wednesday, but instead kept her window wide open as they lay unused. The thermostat on her office’s wall displayed 79 degrees.

Turning on the heating is usually a staggered process, and heat does not get to every building at the same time. Students who live on campus, like Adannya Carter, could not with certainty say the heating in their dorms had been turned on. Others, like Bianca Melvin-Arias and Aileen Leahy, have trouble adjusting the heat.

“Does the dial work or is it decoration like the door knob? That’s what I want to know,” Leahy said.

Melvin-Arias and Leahy shared that some nights, they bury themselves in all their blankets, and others feel like a “heatstroke.”

Melvin-Arias said she is sometimes “too scared to touch the dial” because the rooms have no directions for controlling the built-in heaters. 

“They just turned it on really late, in my opinion,” Melvin-Arias said. “The classes were hot before the buildings were. Everyone kept getting sick from the coldness, people are still sick in our building because they didn’t turn on the heat.”

According to a fact-checked Healthline article from last year, cold temperatures are not known to cause sickness directly, but do weaken the immune system, making one more susceptible to disease.

Carter said she finds the heat in Hawkins Hall and other academic buildings “pretty good.” In dorms, however, it can be unpredictable.

“The heat does work, but only when it chooses to. When it wants to work, it works,” Carter said. “It’s like, ‘Surprise!’”

With a changing climate, Maintenance and Operations might need to make changes to the heating system, as well.

“While we understand that these heating and cooling challenges present difficulties and discomfort for students and employees, our goal and our mission is always to provide the best, most appropriate environment in all buildings,” Haskins and Moulton wrote.


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