Friday, January 07, 2011

MesaLeaks - H2O Edition

The water line break and flooding at the brand new, $30 Million Mesa State College Center on New Year's Eve marked the third time in as many years that a major facility of a Grand Valley educational institution has suffered damage from interior flooding. In May 2009, a sprinkler activation caused by an electrical short caused significant flooding of the Mesa State Tomlinson Library. The weekend before Thanksgiving in 2007, a broken line in the boiler room at Grand Junction High School leaked over 250,000 gallons of water into the auditorium and other critical areas, resulting in the cancellation of nearly 3 weeks of classes.

Aside from the damage, disruption, and cleanup issues, these incidents also have one glaring thing in common; the flooding was not mitigated until being discovered by staff personnel arriving for work. After the Tomlinson Library flood, which was caused as a consequence of a fire alarm system activation that was not sent to the Grand Junction Fire Department, I contacted both Mesa State and GJFD representatives regarding what types of monitoring systems were in place and/or required. Acting MSC spokesperson Kristi Pollard stated at the time:
"Mesa State College does not currently have an automated system that will contact the fire department. However, during the summer (of 2009) MSC will be undertaking a controlled maintenance system project that will be updating all of MSC's aging monitoring systems with state-of-the-art systems that will all be linked together on the college's fiber network."
This week I decided to re-contact those that I spoke with back then, and ascertain the status of these planned improvements, especially as they relate to non-fire related water leaks of the type that struck the College Center last week. I sent e-mails to MSC Media Relations Director Dana Nunn and Grand Junction Fire Department Public Information Officer Mike Page, asking about the status of the Controlled Maintenance System project, and what it's designed to do.
Ms. Nunn replied:
Yes, work was completed on Controlled Maintenance Project M06002, Campus Fire Alarms in June, 2010. Fire alarm systems are used to notify others (MSC, emergency services, etc.) in the event of a fire or if/when problems arise in the various sensors and annunciators within the building. These sensors were not triggered by the events on New Year's Eve. Cleanup and restoration of the facility is ongoing.
The GJFD also received an extensive response from Kent Marsh, MSC Facilities Manager, that they shared with me. Mr. Marsh went into more detail about the nature of the incident, and the capabilities of the College's new monitoring system:
Fire alarm systems are used to notify others (MSC, emergency services, etc.) in the event of a fire or if/when problems arise in the various sensors and annunciators within the building. Said incidents will ether notify College personnel (faulty annunciator, detector, etc.) or both College personnel and emergency services (fire, smoke, etc.) depending on the type of alarm / emergency detected. Unfortunately, the leak that caused all of the damage occurred within three separate heat pumps inside the building. Said heat pumps are not connected into the Notifier alarm panel in the building.
The flooding that occurred in the College Center was in no way connected with the fire suppression systems within the building so neither emergency responders or MSC personnel were alerted. In addition, the building's Direct Digital Controls were not set up to monitor make up water in the building's geo loop. However, MSC has asked the same questions about the building's Direct Digital Controls and Notifier Alarm system to determine if either system has the capability of alerting MSC personnel in the event of a water leak inside the building.
The College Center is served by an extensive Geothermal heating and cooling system that also serves several other MSC buildings. The heat pumps that Mr. Marsh referred to apparently provide heat to the building in the winter through water pipes that froze when three of the heat pumps failed. However, the failure and resulting flood went unnoticed because the College's new monitoring system isn't set up to look for such activity.

This reminds me of other leaks that have been in the news recently. The lack of monitoring of the geothermal system at the College can perhaps be equated with a lack of actionable intelligence about the location of certain files on an unsecured Mesa County FTP server. In both cases, when a failure or error occurred, so did the leak, which went unnoticed because nobody was watching.

The College is trying to make the necessary changes, and that's a good thing for everyone, especially the taxpayers that helped pay to build, and essentially own, these buildings. Even in the wake of the New Year's Eve incident, the improvements that MSC did make paid off last night, when the fire sprinkler system activated and put more water in the College Center. This tripped an alarm, which notified everyone necessary before significant damage could occur.

Hey, it could have been worse. You could have been a guest at Main Street Suites last night.

So the College has made significant progress, and stands to make more. Too bad that it took another unmonitored flood to spur them to action. What has School District 51 done to protect their facilities in the wake of the GJHS flood, which was probably more damaging to facilities and schedules than the two College floods combined?

According to District Spokesperson Christy McGee, water detection sensors were installed in 17 district buildings (including GJHS) where the boilers are installed below grade. These sensors will automatically initiate a telephone calling tree of maintenance personnel when activated.

People largely equate floods with natural disasters, but minimize the propensity of their occurrence when problems happen within plumbing systems. It's good that these government entities have chosen to provide for an alerting contingency when these types of problems happen, even if nearly catastrophic occurrences had to be the impetus for them to get started.

GJFD's Mike Page also told me that both Mesa State and District 51 have been excellent to work with in these mitigation and protection efforts. It's good to see the spirit of cooperation working for the benefit of all concerned.

Have a good weekend.

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