Campus Plumbing Shops: Behind the Scenes

No matter the size of the school, campus plumbing shops keep the water flowing. CP&M compares large schools with small to track differences and similarities.

Does size matter? When it comes to campus plumbing shops the answer is… maybe? Be it a small, private collage or a big public university, schools rely on their master plumbers and journeymen to keep the water flowing, yet their responsibilities and approaches can be quite different. 

There is one strong similarity, however. As a group, plumbers trend towards the reticent. Used to operating behind the scenes, these professionals would rather complete their work orders than talk about them. Still, College Planning & Management corralled a few plumbing professionals willing to share stories about their workloads, shop responsibilities and why no one is using greywater.

Meet the Schools
University of Denver (UD), with over 4,000,000 square feet in 100 buildings, is a big school that keeps getting bigger. Smack in the middle of implementing a 20-year master plan, they are projecting significant growth.

University of Wisconsin-Madison is even bigger. Their 936-acre main campus holds 420 buildings with 25,000,000 gross square feet of space.

On the smaller side, Middlebury College in Vermont has 2,500,000 square feet of buildings. Their last benchmarking assessment counted between 3,000 to 3,500 plumbing fixtures. They also have full responsibility for their utility structure, which includes 21,000 feet of water mains, storm sewers and wells.

With just 45 buildings, Reed College represents the smallest school. Its 1,000,000 square feet of space sit on a 116-acre campus in Portland, OR.

Different Shop Sizes, Similar Challenges
As might be expected, University of Wisconsin-Madison has the biggest shop with 25 people to serve the entire campus. Their responsibilities include the maintenance and repair of a wide variety of plumbing systems including sanitary waste and vent systems, storm lines, hot and cold-water lines, various plumbing fixtures, backflow protection certification, fire protection systems, swimming pools, pumps, laboratory piping, and medical gas systems. They maintain many miles of underground water and sewer utilities as well as providing estimating, remodeling, and installation of new plumbing systems.

Reed is the smallest, with just one fully licensed plumber. “Our entire maintenance department is just 11, and that includes me and my assistant director,” says Townsend Angell, Reed’s director of Facilities Operations. Because of this, Angell reports that the plumber, electrician and carpenter are all cross-trained and more than willing to help each other out when needed.

Middlebury and the University of Denver have similarly-sized shops. Middlebury’s seven plumbers complete some 2,500 maintenance or repair orders per year. “That could include anything from fixing a plugged toilet to taking care of the water main,” says Mike Moser, Middlebury’s director of Facility Services.

Ironically, the University of Denver has only four plumbers in their shop: two journeymen and two master plumbers. One takes care of work orders such as clogged drains, broken faucets, and flushometers. Another is dedicated to testing some 350 backflows. A third spends 80 percent of his time testing fire sprinklers. Don Auman, Plumbing Shop foreman and master plumber, devotes a good 40 hours a month to regulatory reporting. They also survey buildings, looking for small, unreported problems. Large buildings are looked at twice a year while smaller ones are checked once every two years.

Because the University of Denver’s housing department has their own set of plumbers, this arrangement works—for now. “We’re adding significant buildings and beds,” says Auman. “Our responsibility has grown but the crew hasn’t. We’re going to have to expand.”

Outside Help
All schools, big and small, contract out work. The University of Wisconsin-Madison uses the price tag to determine what stays in-house and what goes out. “If the job is an expensive capital project it’s contracted out,” reports Steve Wagner, communications director, Facility Planning & Management.

Reed contracts out smaller projects with such regularity that, “people may think that the contractors are our employees,” says Angell. He uses estimated project time to decide when to call for help. Anything more than two or three days is usually outsourced to trusted professionals. “We have ongoing relationships with them. They are familiar with our campus, our processes and how to conduct themselves on the job.”

Saving Water
Conserving water is a key goal for all the schools and so ingrained that it’s second nature. “The plumbers have been installing low-flow fixtures here since the early 2000,” reports UW-Madison’s Wagner. “It’s been a slow, incremental process that’s more or less done now.” Along with low-flow toilets, urinals, and drinking fountains, the school reports great success with water bottle fillers. “It helps reduce plastic waste,” says Wagner. “There’s one by my office and I use it all the time.”

Auman reports that UD tried, and quickly abandoned, waterless urinals. “They require daily maintenance or they don’t work.” They moved to ultra-low flush urinals instead. The fixtures still require maintenance, but re-jetting and flushing the lines need only happen once or twice a year.

Reed just completed a holistic energy retrofit of their campus where they replaced every toilet, shower head, and faucet with a water-saving fixture. Their irrigation system is wirelessly connected to weather stations to avoid overwatering. When they do water, they use a non-potable source. “We’ve grown over time but our water use has not increased at the same rate,” reports Angell.

No school is doing anything with greywater. “I haven’t seen any application for it on campus, for now,” says Angell.

Grooming the Next Class
No matter the size, all the shops are busy and could probably use an extra full-time set of hands. While budgets may hold some schools back, the tight labor market is a challenge for everyone. In a proactive move, Middlebury makes it easy for tradespeople to stay current on codes and the latest technology. As a result, techs tend to stick around.

“Most folks start their career here and retire 30 years later,” says Moser.