Steam leak disrupts classes

by John Adams

A leak from a 12-foot pipe on the roof of the Tate Lab of Physics produced a three-story plume of steam and a powerful noise resembling a steam whistle Monday morning, according to eye witnesses.
The plume rose about 30 feet to 40 feet and tripped a fire alarm, forcing the evacuation of about 200 students and faculty and bringing police and fire crews to the building. According to witnesses, the crowd had to yell in each others’ ears to be heard over the sound of the pressurized steam escaping.
The leak was caused by a faulty valve that reduces the pressure of steam entering the building for heat. When the valve malfunctioned, the steam was rerouted to a release pipe on the roof of the building.
The steam release occurred on the north side of the roof, directly above the Theoretical Physics Institute on the fourth floor. The steam could be seen from associate professor Priscilla Cushman’s second-floor window.
Cushman said she heard a loud bang and then heard debris hit her window.
“It sounded like a steam engine whistle going full-throttle,” Cushman said.
John Mollner, a shift supervisor for Facilities Management, said the steam release lasted about 50 minutes, but the building was without heat for only about 10 minutes. The valve is scheduled to be upgraded this spring, Mollner said.
He said steam heating is generally a low-maintenance system.
“We (Facilities Management) were all surprised to hear of the problem,” he said.
But Mollner said this is the second time in two years a steam leak has occurred in the physics building. However, the leak last year occurred when classes were not in session.