Grounds team tackles unrelenting snow and freezing cold

When the University took the unusual step to close for a day in early January due to severe winter storms and sub-zero temperatures, students, faculty and staff were encouraged to stay off the roads and hunker down at home. But while others enjoyed a day off, the dedicated grounds crew in Facilities Services sprang into action, braving the arctic weather to ensure the campus was maintained and ready to welcome the campus community back the following day.

Snow accumulation totals for the season at Midway Airport topped 65 inches this month, which is 30 inches higher than the normal average for an entire season. In addition, with weeks of winter weather still on the horizon, the 2014 Chicago winter is already on track as the eighth coldest since 1871.

When most are sound asleep, our colleagues within grounds arrive to Hyde Park at 4 a.m. to begin clearing paths for the UChicago community using a variety of modern tools and utility vehicles with plows, brushes and snow-throwers.

“The grounds crew has gone above and beyond all season long,” said Brandon Rux, manager of grounds and landscape services. “It hasn’t been easy, but we understand the importance for the entire UChicago community.”

The 20-person grounds team tackles the main entrances, accessible ramps and paths to 120 campus buildings. With the increase of snow and consistent freezing temperatures, the University has utilized more man-hours and de-icing materials this year than in recent years.

“We typically go through about 120 tons of salt in an entire winter season. This winter, we have already used 220 tons in 10 weeks. We have had someone on staff here every day, except Christmas day, dealing with snow or ice management,” said Kevin Austin, director of campus and residential services. 

To combat the winter weather, the University employs many unique techniques. Several trucks and utility vehicles are equipped with pre-treatment chemical applicators that spray beet juice blended with a salt brine on the pavement prior to an expected storm. This helps to speed the melting of initial accumulation and also reduces the need for manpower.

After a storm, additional treatments of magnesium chloride and beet juice-coated salt are made to control dangerous conditions on sidewalks and parking lots. Even several days after a storm, crews continue to work to clear additional paths, mounded snow and drifts.

In addition to campus buildings and pathways, Facilities Services oversees the operation of 42 residential properties around campus and beyond.

“Throughout Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn, University janitors live in the buildings they maintain. This proximity enables immediate response to these recent snow storms and creates a special sense of ownership and responsibility,” said Myriam Weaver, senior manager of residential properties.

Furthermore, 11 residential halls and three dining commons (RH&D) are maintained by building maintenance workers (BMWs).

“The BMWs in the Residence Halls and Dining group strive to make entry and egress to the residence halls safe in order for residents to get to their classes, the dining facilities, or to the library,” said Jennifer O’Brien, senior manager of residence halls and dining. With nearly 3,000 students, faculty, staff and their families living within these buildings, it is critical to maintain adequate egress and proper conditions at all times.

The harsh winter weather has also impacted building systems that are controlled by engineering shops within Facilities Services. Responsible for more than 10 million-square-feet of campus buildings, three groups within Operations and Maintenance oversee all responsibilities for heating and cooling, plumbing and general operations.

“Our response to each respective issue, such as cold calls, frozen coils and other emergency situations, has been excellent due to the dedication of our frontline staff and our supervisors,” said Valerie RiChard, director of maintenance. The continued cold temperatures have increased the need for on-going inspections through scheduled walk-throughs and through the University’s building automation systems.

Not surprisingly, the University has utilized more steam than ever before in a winter season, which is produced locally at two utility plants on campus. Our plants are running at 100 percent output at all times and have been for weeks, according to Sumit Ray, director of engineering and utilities.

“The University has utilized alternative measures during these winter months to ensure sufficient steam levels are maintained,” Ray said. “With the high demand and critical temperatures, we have utilized our back-up process of fuel-oil to sustain the steam output. Careful planning means we are able to maintain sufficient steam, even under spectacular conditions like we have now.”

-- By Kevin Ahn, Facilities Manager

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