PSU underground

Heading underground to get from one place to another to escape the rain is a common practice around PSU. What many students do not realize is that the network of tunnels is far more extensive than our connecting pathways between Smith, Neuberger, and Cramer Hall, taking nearly an hour to do a complete loop around campus.

In the cavernous spaces beneath our classrooms, machinery whirs and buzzes, bellows and blows. The tunnels can be tight, and on warm days must be hopelessly hot. Their existence and daily maintenance contributes greatly to keeping campus functioning, day after day.

“These tunnels are meant for utilities. We transport gas, steam, water and communication. They’re not for vehicle traffic or pedestrian traffic, so to speak. They’re not supposed to be used for ventilation or for storage, but they are,” said John Cieply, a refrigeration mechanic, before unlocking a heavy metal fire door in the lowest level of the Smith. The light from the hallway reveals a ceiling riddled with thickly insulated color-coded pipes, so low they are padded to avoid head injuries. Radiating heat and humidity, the temperature goes up an easy 15 degrees from the hallway.

“All our pipes are color coded. Blue is chilled water, yellow is steam and green is potable water. Brownish-red means sewers,” he said. Working in these tunnels for the last 23 years, Cieply is particularly concerned with the ambient temperatures of Portland State’s facilities.

Two heating plants disperse heat to all the buildings through what is commonly referred to as “The Campus Loop” system, typically splitting the load. The heat comes in from the tunnels as steam, and is essentially like a radiator system one would find in an apartment building. The steam condenses, and is returned to the boiler as water, minimizing waste. Each building can be shut off from the others, using huge, manual wheels resembling an enormous outdoor faucet.

The only missing link in this ring of buildings connected by tunnels is the area under the Park Blocks between Millar Library and Shattuck Hall. “We’re hoping to make that connection under the Park Blocks,” Cieply said. “That’s something that would be helpful for our cooling needs. It sure would be easier to get across there than going under Broadway.”

Cooling the campus in summer is a project best worked on now, when the need is zero. “We have a chiller that produces 45-degree water, and we send it to the different parts of the buildings, where it goes through a coil. Hot air goes across the coil and heat travels from warmer to colder,” Cieply added.

Under Millar Library, a massive chiller lies neatly dissembled, its pieces and parts so heavy they require mechanical help to separate. The motor alone weighs 2,000 pounds, and can be removed or replaced through a trap door with the help of a crane outside.

Such strategic planning and foresight is reflected in the newer buildings on campus, the lack of which is sorely felt in older buildings. The replacement or removal of the behemoth mass of a furnace, for example, can necessitate the removal of walls, and can be a challenge for sheer manpower to navigate.

Problems come from thoughtless misuse of things like plumbing, where a foreign object can back up a sewer connection and cause a major leak and a nasty mess to clean in the tunnels. “What’s difficult is vandalism and abuse. If those things could change and people could cop a different attitude, that would save a lot of money – and time,” Cieply said.

In the last 20 years, most of the systems have been wired to be monitored remotely, and will send an alert signal if a temperature, for example, has been compromised. Such forward thinking prevents most potentially disastrous events from occurring.