New central cooling system in the works

Jason Juno

Although nature’s air conditioner is fast-approaching, students in St. Paul will not have to worry about air conditioning on campus.

A construction project scheduled for completion in October means more reliable air conditioning will be available in several University buildings.

Construction is currently slowing traffic around the St. Paul campus, because the University is working on a new central chiller plant and underground piping network that will update an outdated air conditioning system.

The system will keep buildings air-conditioned for general comfort and research, said Michael Denny, director of developmental services for Capital Planning and Project Management.

The project will cost $44 million, but Denny said he thinks the final tally will be less. Capital projects, such as the chiller plant, typically range from $1 million to $100 million, he said.

Senior project manager Roger Wegner said the more reliable air conditioning will be a benefit to students.

First-year student Nick Nelson said he wondered about the high price of the project, but he’s OK with it.

“I guess if it’s at risk, you wouldn’t want anything bad to happen,” he said.

Denny said the project is saving the University money in the long run – more than $2 million per year with the first phase of the project – compared to running the old system. He said the money can be diverted elsewhere in the University.

Phase one, which is removing 16 outdated chillers and consolidating the system into one central chiller, will cost approximately $20 million, Denny said. The Legislature’s year 2000 bonding bill allocated the money to the University.

Sixteen other chillers will be past usage life sometime in the next five years, Denny said.

Journalism sophomore Tyler Rushmeyer said he does not have a problem with the University spending money on the fix, because it’s necessary.

The building that will house the central plant, at 1518 Cleveland Ave., was originally scheduled for demolition at a cost of $400,000 to the University, but the chiller project saved the “near-historic” building, Denny said.

He said he is hopeful the University can do the next two steps in the project – connecting more buildings and adding more pipes to the system – at the same time. But the Legislature might choose to allocate money for phases two and three in separate bonding bills.

If the Legislature does not give the University enough money, the school will have to make do with the first 16 chillers. Denny said that would cause the University to put money into a system that will not last.

Construction has caused some traffic delays, although Rushmeyer said it has not been an inconvenience.

Tuesday afternoon, construction caused delays on Gortner Avenue, because trucks in one clear lane of traffic sometimes blocked cars that tried to access the road.

Denny said underground piping work is what has caused most of the road delays and closures.. Construction crews had to avoid things such as underground gas mains.

Most of the construction was done this summer, Wegner said. However, money was available in the budget to add more piping, which is happening now, Denny said.

Wegner said he expects completion for everything except blacktop by Oct. 8.

He also said he expects Gortner Avenue to be closed one Saturday for a couple of hours.