ComEd offers possible fixes to NU officials

Mindy Hagen

In a Monday meeting called productive by both sides, Northwestern facilities management officials and Commonwealth Edison representatives reviewed the causes of the four power outages that have plagued campus since the start of the academic year and brainstormed solutions to avert future blackouts.

Ronald Nayler, NU’s vice president for facilities management, said ComEd showed it is taking the blackouts seriously by sending seven representatives to the meeting.

“They understood the seriousness of the issue of having classrooms and research labs go dark,” Nayler said. “They don’t want it to happen again and they will do more preventable maintenance and system checks to ensure that.”

The most recent outage, which struck 17 South Campus buildings on Oct. 22, was caused by a faulty switch gear near campus. ComEd spokesman Mike Radziewicz said the switch was fixed the next day and that representatives at the meeting promised further inspections of all university power feeders in the near future.

“The gear has been replaced and we hope there will not be any more problems,” Radziewicz said. “Most importantly, we wanted to talk to the university and have them realize we are working hard to address the reliability problems.”

ComEd officials said they plan to visit campus within the next few weeks to inspect additional equipment, including all of the vaults containing feeders, Nayler said. The representatives also showed a logbook detailing past problems with feeder 473, the troublesome power source of South Campus.

“Certainly over the past few years, the outages have been substantially less than before, and we saw that through the logbook,” Nayler said. “They said they had been doing an improved job in that area, and we agreed with them after reviewing it.”

Radziewicz said before the meeting that the company has substantially improved its reliability in Evanston in recent years by focusing on problems with individual feeders instead of streamlining the entire feeder system.

Although he was unsure when ComEd would inspect the on-campus equipment, Nayler said the company already has started doing spot checks along the feeder routes. Most feeder lines are difficult to maintain because they are above ground and subject to storms, animals and trees, but Nayler said ComEd plans to examine their current state in their review.

Also at the meeting, ComEd discussed pilot programs to draw more power from existing feeders. The company plans to provide NU with documentation on manual switches, a possible solution when a feeder shuts down.

“If one feeder goes out, we would be manually able to switch our power source to an alternate feeder,” Nayler said.

ComEd’s engineering department also will examine NU buildings to determine whether they could benefit from having a second circuit. Although many buildings on campus have a backup generator or two separate gears with a switch in the case of an outage, Radziewicz said some facilities could benefit from adding a second circuit.

Although ComEd cannot promise the university that power outages are a thing of the past, Nayler said the company now will work in a more preventive mode.

“If there is a freak windstorm which knocks down power, they can’t predict that,” Nayler said. “But in terms of switch gear issues, they are confident the problem has been resolved. And now we have greater confidence in them than we did a few weeks ago.”