Occidental’s perennial debate over air conditioning (AC) in residence halls reemerged last month when a week-long heat wave and malfunction at the school’s central chilling plant caused temperatures in buildings across campus to skyrocket.
“At the beginning of most school years we get an extra heat wave, almost without fail,” Director of Facilities Thomas Polansky said. “And so folks coming in—especially in the first few weeks of school, coming in from environments that are nicely air conditioned—they get into these historic structures that don’t have air conditioning, and it’s tough.”
Students have taken issue with the lack of AC in some residence halls. During this year’s Sept. 12–17 heat wave, temperatures reached over 100 degrees.
One student, who asked to remain anonymous, suffered from heat exhaustion due to high temperatures in his room. He installed an AC unit in his room, but was told he could not keep it. He has since resorted to sleeping on couches in other halls and houses with AC when temperatures in his room get too high.
“Despite the many arguments at hand for why students shouldn’t be punished for providing themselves the comfort [Residential Education and Housing Services] ‘strives’ for, this has become a medical issue for me and I feel like such a sluggish response on their end shows their priority,” the student said via email.
The rest of the campus shared this student’s discomfort when a software glitch at the central chiller plant on Sept. 16 disrupted AC to 16 buildings on campus, including seven residence halls. The malfunction caused the ice makers to stop functioning, according to Polansky. Without ice, the cooling towers could not provide cool air to the campus’s central AC loop. Facilities ultimately had to use two portable air-cooled chillers to get the system back up to speed, according to Director of Communications James Tranquada.
The machinery in the chiller plant has not been updated in 16 years, Polansky said, but they are looking at ways to upgrade it and make it more efficient. The board of trustees has also expressed interest in upgrading the chiller system. During last weekend’s trustee meeting, Head of the Buildings and Grounds Committee David Anderson ’63 said his committee was eager to address the issue.
“The complete system is clearly one of the top priorities, if not the top priority for this fiscal year,” Anderson said. “We’ve got several ways to finance it so it’s not that it is an unknown, we just need to get the appropriate approvals.”
Vice President of Finance and Planning Amos Himmelstein is equally eager to upgrade the chiller plant, but said cost is a limiting factor. Anderson put the cost of upgrading the chiller plant at $8 million.
But installing AC in un-serviced residence halls is an entirely different matter that will require engineering and infrastructure research, according to Himmelstein. In the meantime, Facilities will continue to look into ways to best address the problem.
Polansky said there are two ways to install AC in un-serviced residence halls.
The first option would be to upgrade the machinery in the chiller plant to be more efficient and then expand the central loop to those residential halls that do not have AC. The second option would be to install AC units to serve halls individually.
Polansky additionally noted that a satellite chiller plant on Mount Fiji could provide AC to upper campus buildings and would be more efficient than expanding the central AC loop up the hill to these buildings.
The first option would be the most energy-efficient solution, but it would cost millions of dollars to install AC ducts in older residence halls. Funds for the project would likely have to be supplied by the school through the operating budget or other means, according to Himmelstein.
“It’s a tough thing to fundraise for,” Himmelstein said. “Most people don’t want to put their name on the chiller plant, unfortunately.”
The second option is the next most viable, but would be even more costly and require major structural and electrical renovations to older buildings, according to Polansky.
Despite the efforts of Facilities and the administration to address the AC problem, some parents have expressed frustration with the current situation. One parent contacted the school several times to try to make the situation better for his daughter. He was especially unhappy about the school’s requirement that students live on campus for three years, in rooms he considers uninhabitable.
“The problem was many of these buildings were built more than 65 years ago, and have no air conditioning,” the parent said via email. “Why is that not clearly stated when students are applying for college? As a parent, I didn’t realize that this could possibly be an issue, so why would I ask about it?”
Anderson says that, although this is an important issue around the beginning—and sometimes at the end—of each school year, there are many other infrastructure projects that require attention as well.
“As the trustees look at this … we are taking a very thoughtful and fact-based approach to infrastructure on campus because we want to be an efficient campus,” Anderson said.