Northern plumbing in hot water


Hot water - or the lack of it - is causing some problems at Family Student Housing at Montana State University-Northern.

"You chance having the water go completely out on you," said housing resident Randi Ruby. "It goes on and off in sporadic bursts."

Rob Harrison, physical plant director for the university, said the problem is in the hot water circulation system and the tunnel it runs through.

When it was operating properly, the system kept the water pressure high and kept hot water near the faucets, so the tenants didn't have to run their water long to get water from the boiler to the tap.

The tunnel collapsed about three weeks ago, breaking the circulation system, Harrison said. The university is working to repair the system in three of the five buildings at the housing complex today, but the long-term repairs won't be completed until the school year is about to start next fall, he said. The hot water supply at the two buildings on the west side of the complex won't be at full capacity until then. People who planned to live in those buildings over the summer can move into the other three buildings.

Kevin Ruby, Randi Ruby's husband, said last week that the lack of hot water has been a real problem for them. Their 11-month-old daughter, Caitlynn, has been sick, and it's been difficult to care for her without a ready supply of hot water, he said.

Harrison said he and his staff expected the circulation system to keep operating for a while.

"It's been kind of a scramble for us. We knew the thing was in tough shape, but it happened a little sooner than we thought it would," he said.

Vice Chancellor Chuck Jensen said the way the system was designed some 50 years ago when the housing complex was built has made it difficult to easily repair the break. The circulation system was installed in a 36-inch-tall, 300-foot-long cement tunnel, he said.

"That's how they constructed things back then," he said. "The way this thing was constructed made things really tough to repair."

Bill Lanier, director of student life at Northern, said the water for the housing complex has to be turned off at least overnight and possibly for a day while work is done to reconnect the three buildings on the east side. The university decided to wait until after graduation, held last Saturday, to do the work. That way it would affect fewer people, he said.

The tenants at Family Student Housing still had hot water but had to run water for a while before hot water reached the faucet, and the pressure was very low, Harrison said. He said if several people were running hot water at the same time, it could cut the water flow off.

There were about 33 apartments still occupied before graduation, Lanier said. About six were occupied in each of the western buildings, but half of those will empty after graduation as students leave the university.

About 25 of the 45 units in the complex will be occupied or will be used to store students' possessions over the summer, he said. Students have the option of storing their possessions in their apartment at a reduced rate until they return in the fall.

A couple of students had said they were moving out because of the hot water problem, Lanier said, but one later decided to use the apartment for storage and return to the complex next fall. His office hasn't heard of any others leaving because of the water problems, Lanier added.

Harrison said the circulation system needs to be replaced, and the problem can't be solved with a quick, simple repair. The university plans to install separate boilers for each building, but that won't be completed until shortly before the school year begins.

The physical plant sent a worker into the tunnel shortly after the break was discovered, Lanier said.

"We realized we didn't have the capacity with our workers to (fix) it. We were kind of at the mercy of the contractors," he said.

A contractor looked at the system, and the university realized the problem, including the chance of a cave-in while work was being done, was larger and more dangerous than anticipated, Lanier said.

Jensen said the initial estimates of the cost to install the separate boilers for the buildings are $100,000 to $150,000. The university is looking at several options to pay for the work, including borrowing money from a state fund or from another unit of the Montana State University system.


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