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Temperature changes create challenges for facilities management

December 13, 2007

Facilities Management faces unpredictable temperature swings and building design issues as they work to keep buildings feeling comfortable for students and staff.

“The temperature change — sudden change — makes me sick,” freshman Yissell Asencio said.

Asencio said she often deals with a stuffy nose and ear infections when there is an abrupt change in weather conditions.

Likewise, sudden temperature changes can cause problems for the equipment controlling temperatures in campus buildings. When cooling systems run too late into fall, they may be damaged if a cold front moves in. The coils inside the big boxes known as chillers contract in cold temperatures, putting them at a high risk of breaking, Michael Stifter, director of facilities management, said.

Facilities management also faces the challenge of keeping buildings consistently heated this time of year.

“It’s actually a pretty automated process,” Stifter said.

Normally, sensors placed around campus buildings report back to a centralized location where staff in facilities management can make sure temperatures stay somewhere around 68 degrees, the minimum temperature the state recommends public institutions to maintain in their buildings.

Size, design of mechanical systems, function and layout factors that Stifter describes as “building nuances” can result in areas that are significantly cooler or warmer than the rest of the building, and sensors don’t always pick up on this, Stifter said.

Matthew Vonk teaches classes in the physics department. Vonk spends most of his time on campus in Centennial Science Hall.

“I’m usually comfortable,” Vonk said.

Some of his students, though, complain that one of the classrooms he teaches in is always too cold. Vonk said he gets tired of listening to complaints about the room’s temperature.

“I would say, if you’re frequently cold, either write a letter to facilities management or wear a jacket or a sweater,” Vonk said.

Facilities management staff look for such temperature problems, but they may not notice all of the areas affected, Stifter said. This makes it important for students and faculty members to take Vonk’s advice and alert facilities management if they discover a hot or cold pocket of air.

North Hall is another concern for facilities management, though its problems are not brought on by the change of seasons.

Robert Coffman, who teaches business calculus, trigonometry, statistics and college algebra, holds some of his classes in North Hall, which is also the site of his office. Coffman said that most of the year North Hall feels comfortable. However, there are a few weeks in the end of spring semester and the beginning of fall semester when the building can feel unbearably hot and humid, Coffman said.

“I’d say it’s probably compromised the ability to teach at times, and it’s probably compromised the ability to learn,” Coffman said. “But keep in mind, everybody’s assessment of this is different.”

Fans and opened windows help him and his students get through these warm fronts, Coffman said.

Facilities management is looking into more effective ways to cool North Hall, but it’s a difficult task because of the building’s age.

Cooling systems work best when they are incorporated into the building’s design during the construction process, Stifter said. North Hall was built before air conditioning technology existed.

“There’s not a particular plan for North Hall,” Stifter said. “To do it well would require a complete renovation.”

All systems in the building from plumbing to heating and cooling would need to be upgraded because of their close interplay, and all would have to be tailored to the specific design of North Hall.

Students and staff will probably have to wait 10 years or more to see these changes, Stifter said.

For now, facilities management and other groups on campus are studying temporary solutions, such as air conditioners for individual classrooms and repairs of ones already installed around North Hall.