When the power went out last Thursday for the second time in three weeks and the student body funneled into generator-powered Sharples, clustering around the scarce outlets and eating waffles through the evening to quell a rising sense that the world is fundamentally unpredictable, Director of Maintenance Ralph Thayer’s emails shone through the darkness like a beacon of calm competency.
“At 5:15PM one of the just repaired feeders from Morton blew out casting the campus into darkness once again,” he wrote in an email with the resigned subject heading, “Another Outage.” “There is a second feeder on the south side of campus in a vault on Chester Road but that vault has to be pumped free of water in order to throw the switch.”
He didn’t pull any punches or try to hide setbacks, writing in a second update, “As a point of information we are still waiting for the pump truck to pump out the vault. It is not on site. We have been told the pump truck has been dispatched but do not know its estimated time of arrival. I’ll let you know when it does. Hopefully we can get the power on within the next couple of hours.”
I wasn’t precisely sure what a feeder was, and the mental image of important electrical equipment submerged in an watery vault was not a comforting one, but I felt certain that Thayer was managing the situation with aplomb, and that whatever happened, he would keep us in the loop.
With the lights back on and life returned to normal, I was curious about what it takes to power Swarthmore. Recently, I sat down to talk with Thayer and Bill Maguire, Maintenance Manager, about the recent outages and their day-to-day experience of keeping the college running.
Both men have worked at Swarthmore for over 25 years, and seemed unsurprised by any problems that the college could throw at them.
When asked if there was any issue that was particularly difficult for them to solve in the last outage, Thayer replied, “It’s not tricky for us, we get too much practice – that’s the problem.”
However, Maguire added that securing generators can be challenging – wait too long to order one and they run out locally, delaying the restoration of power until other generators can be shipped in from out of state.
“That’s not something you want in the wintertime,” said Thayer. “Overnight with no power? Not good. Students get cranky – they want hot water, heat, lights. Kids these days.”
That means that responding quickly is key, but judging the duration of the outage (and therefore what kind of response is needed) can be difficult.
“The first step is making a snap decision,” said Thayer. “Are these lights going to be out for a minute, or are they going to be out for a day, or are they going to be out for a week? And that’s a tough call to make, it’s really based a lot on what you hear about the weather, presuming it’s a weather event that caused the outage.”
This seems to generally be the case – outages tend to come from PECO’s above-ground electric lines being taken down by trees or from cars hitting utility poles.
“Their lines run so much distance,” said Maguire. “There’s one feeder that goes up Cedar Lane, runs through the neighborhoods, gets out onto Baltimore Pike, and goes all the way to almost Media. That’s their biggest challenge, because of the big trees in this area.”
When asked if there are any particular difficulties to managing Swarthmore’s power and heating, or problems with the age of buildings, Thayer had few complaints.
“Sure, we’ve got old buildings, but they’re adequate. They’re not necessarily the most efficient buildings, but there’s something to be said for their ruggedness. It’s the Soviet style of, ‘it works.’ You can hit it with a hammer and it’ll start working again. With most of the newer buildings, it’s finely-tuned technologies that tend to be more problematic.”
Maguire said that handling the complexity of the Science Center after an outage can be difficult.
“There’s a lot of systems to restore to normal up there,” he said.
However, predicting the weather has become increasingly challenging, which makes deciding when to switch from heating to cooling an issue.
“I would say there’s been a fairly dramatic change in the last ten years,” said Thayer, when asked if he has seen alterations in weather patterns since he began working at the college. “The shoulder season, the season between the heating season and the cooling season, is definitely longer. It seems like it’s longer in the fall, so you get more summertime weather, and it gets weird in the spring, because you’ll have these spurts of warm days like we had in February, and then March has been much colder, probably 10-20 degrees colder than it normally is. It’s supposed to be up to 70 by the weekend, and who knows what’ll happen in April. I’ve been tracking the degree days for years, and it’s been one of the warmest years so far. It’s really weather weirding – the patterns are gone. It’s not an easy thing to predict anymore.”
I asked what a regular day at work entails for both of them, but given that their job description is essentially handling complaints and crises of various magnitudes, such a question proved impossible to answer.
“It can be anything,” said Maguire. “Right now we have a water main break down at the train station, so we have crews down repairing that. We do 10,000 work orders a year so it’s constantly work. As real problems come in or emergencies come in, we assign different crews to these emergencies. There’s always something like that, it just depends how severe.”
“A lot of it’s just day to day,” said Thayer. “Routine maintenance, clogged toilets, lightbulbs out, place needs painting, that sort of thing. A lot of it’s fairly mundane.”
“But there are those days,” added Maguire ruefully.
Wrapping up, I expressed my enthusiasm for Thayer’s emails, and Maguire seemed to know immediately what I was talking about.
“Ralph is our staff writer,” he said. “He’s good at that.”
“I think it’s important when something happens that people aren’t guessing about what happened and why,” said Thayer. “Even though I don’t always have the answers about when the power’s going to come back on, at least people can be informed about what our findings are, so they can get a sense that it’s being paid attention to. It’s important that people know as much as we know.”
I mentioned enjoying the seasonal updates that Thayer sends out regarding heating and air-conditioning (such as one from 2014 with the subject heading, “The Swing Season” that began with the lines, “Not playground, not that music from the 1940’s and certainly not the
questionable social behavior from the 70’s. I’m talking weather”).
“That is not new for Ralph,” said Maguire. “He’s done that for years.”
“They probably have all my writing in the historical library,” Thayer added.
Thayer insisted that most of the credit for handling the outages should go to the Maintenance crew who were working in the field after hours and on weekends, so I will conclude with thanks to them (and to the Sharples staff), but also to our Director for giving us a sense of what it takes to keep things running.