Hall power not guaranteed

By Eric Krol

NIU officials said they are dealing with the residence halls’ power failure problems, but they will offer no guarantees.

NIU Student Regent James Mertes voiced a concern at last week’s Board of Regents meeting about numerous residence hall blackouts here.

Mertes asked NIU President John La Tourette for some sort of a written guarantee for the students because of the cold weather approaching, but La Tourette said he could not offer one.

“No, we’re dealing with cable that’s 25 years old. I wouldn’t want to write a letter guaranteeing it,” La Tourette said.

Mertes said he was especially concerned that with the winter months approaching, a lengthy power outage would force students to walk between dorms to take showers in cold weather.

La Tourette said NIU had met with its consultant and had identified “red-alert sites” and “yellow-alert sites” where the university should anticipate breaks in electrical cables and transformers.

The red-alert sites would be more urgent and the yellow-alert sites less urgent, La Tourette said.

The power outages have been caused by aging transformers and old cables, but Physical Plant Director John Gardner said the possibility of another lengthy outage is minimal.

Gardner said NIU has a unique situation because the west residence halls are wired into two substations instead of the standard single substation.

If one of the lines breaks, power can be shifted to the other line and no power outage occurs, Gardner said.

When one of the lines breaks, it is repaired as quickly as possible.

However, in the case of the Stevenson Towers outage, Gardner said the two lines ran in close proximity to one another.

Because of the high voltage involved, both lines had to be shut off for electricians to make repairs.

“For another outage to occur, it would take some extraordinary bad luck,” he said. “Both feeder lines would have to break.”

Gardner also said it is impossible to predict when a cable will break, but NIU soon will be looking for a firm to test the cables to predict replacement dates.

However, Gardner described the testing procedure as a “Catch-22.”

The test involves putting high voltages through the power cables to see how much voltage is lost. This will enable the firm to predict how much life is left in the cables, he said.

However, the test is risky because the high voltage sometimes burns out the cable. “For this reason, only the cables most likely to go are tested,” Gardner said.

As for predicting when a cable is likely to go without testing, Gardner called it “impossible.”

Gardner said Mertes chose to voice his concern in another forum (the Regents meeting) instead of consulting the Physical Plant, which might have been more knowledgeable.

Mertes said he wanted to ensure the university was doing everything it possibly could to solve the problem.

Grant Towers blacked out on Aug. 21 and Stevenson Towers blacked out on Sept. 11.