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The Daily Illini

Underground tunnels serve as University’s prime energy source

Kevin Delgado, Staff Writer

A supposed University myth? Underground tunnels spanning across the Main Quad allows the school to transmit energy and provide heat. This system, based on nine miles of steam tunnels, serves as the University’s prime energy source. The tunnels also allow the University to more easily connect newly constructed buildings to the system. The system of tunnels isolate the steaming hot pipes so that Facilities and Services can maintain, detect and fix possible steam leaks.

“Abbott Power Plant burns coal, natural gases and water, which we then burn to make steam, rather than condense it,” said Daniel Ruzic, professor of nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering at the University. “The steam then travels through the steam tunnel system to provide energy to the buildings connected.”

According to Steven Breitwieser, manager of communications and external relations for Facilities and Services, there are 20 employees in the Facilities and Services Utilities Distribution department responsible for the utility distribution system on campus.

The longest tunnel connects Bevier Hall, Turner Hall, Edward Madigan Laboratory and the Institute for Genomic Biology. However, the only tunnels that are accessible to the general public are the tunnels connecting the Undergraduate Library to the Main Library, Roger Adams Laboratory to the Chemistry Annex and Noyes Laboratory and the Armory to Huff Hall.

The access to these tunnels is possible because the tunnels no longer contain steam pipes. The only tunnel that requires keycode access is the tunnel that runs from the Armory to Huff Hall, which is commonly used by University athletes.

Kyle Langenderfer, junior in LAS and member of the wrestling team,was first introduced and given the key code to the tunnels as a freshman.

“I use the tunnels two to three times a week,” Langenderfer said. “It’s nice to be able to cut through the Armory building tunnel and get straight to the locker room area right after class, especially when I’m short on time or the weather is bad outside.” In the past, Ruzic has taken several of his Introduction to Energy Sources classes to visit the underground steam tunnels on organized field trips.

“It is very instructive for students to understand how the steam gets from the power plant to the places of use,” Ruzic said. “And I was hoping to demystify the tunnel system a bit by taking the students on an organized tour, so they wouldn’t try to get down there on their own.” The University greatly discourages non-authorized personnel from entering the damp, hot and cramped tunnels. Due to the dangerously hot pipes and risk of pressure leaks, exploring the tunnels could potentially lead to very serious injuries. According to Ruzic, students should not attempt to explore the steam tunnel system due to the dangerous steam pipes, which can reach anywhere from 300 to 400 degrees.

“The steam tunnels are part of a large utility system that has been in operation for more than 800,000 hours,” Breitwieser said. “Although steam distribution operators receive extensive training in the safe operation of the steam system, it is likely that some injuries have occurred.”

Breitwieser said the reliability of steam is critical to University operations and the tunnels allow easy access when maintenance or repair work is needed. This work is included in the campus utilities budget.

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