University of Calgary

Where Are We?

Submitted by alumni on Sat, 05/31/2014 - 18:51.

Where Are We?

Test your knowledge of the university’s hot water tunnel system and you could win tickets to the Glacier Skywalk.
By Deb Cummings | Photo by Riley Brandt

Pipe Dreams

They’re not dank and smelly like the underground tunnels of Les Misérables, but the University of Calgary’s subterranean labyrinth of pipes would be just as tough to hump a body around.

Besides the 8.5 km underground maze of hot water tunnels that supply our entire campus (about 100 buildings) with heating and chilled water, electricity, natural gas, drinking water and compressed air, the city of Calgary doesn’t claim many other tunnel tales. The airport, Foothills Hospital and SAIT also use a network of underground tunnels to transport their water and power needs, but most downtown buildings get their natural gas from a utility company, electricity from the provincial grid, and rely on a boiler and a chiller for the rest.

As far as the university’s Director, Energy and Utilities, Murray Sloan, knows — there are no legends of a buried treasure, secret caves, bordellos, bowling alleys or even a resident ghost rattling amongst the university’s system of hot water pipes and communication cables.

“Yep, our underground tunnels are pretty boring,” he admits, “and, frankly, we like it that way.”

A few examples of graffiti remain from parties and pranks that took place here in the ’80s, but all the “leaks” have since been sealed with crash doors and some serious welding, adds Chief Engineer, Keith Altenhof, who knows every bend in every pipe, having worked in these tunnels for 24 years.

What you’ll find today is a brightly lit grid of concrete tunnels, two feet to 15 ft., below ground. At the main entrance are a rack of bicycles (some kitted out with trailers, to assist in transporting tools) used by employees to ride to various junctions where they check valves, pressure, water quality and so forth. These twice-daily checks require staff to be on shift 24/7, 365 days a year. Sure, there’s a film of dust on the pipes and an old dial-up phone on one wall, but try as we did, we never stumbled across any cryptic maps, a love letter, journal entry or any other clue of a mottled past.

Unlike Jean Valjean’s heroic underground derring-do, the university’s subterranean history is rooted in efficiencies and good timing.

Early in the university’s history, the provincial government helped finance the start of this centralized heating plant, “and we’ve been reaping the benefits ever since,” says Sloan. Today, when the university wants to add a new building (like the latest residence) we “tap into the existing tunnel, cut some pipes, add a high temperature vault (that converts 400F water to 180F) and so on. Between our cogen and four other boilers, we can keep adding to the existing system without having to add a new boiler or chiller to every new building. Imagine the price tag if we had to maintain 50 to 100 boilers and an equal number of chillers on campus, as opposed to four or five!”

With the 2011 purchase of a $50-million cogeneration plant (a highly efficient combined heat and power system), the university became more self-sufficient, by reducing its need to buy power off the grid by about 60 per cent as well as lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30 per cent annually.

“There’s no question — the cogen has saved us millions of dollars in our electrical bills and has reduced our carbon footprint,” says Sloan.

Who would have thought 40-odd-year-old pipe dreams would become such hot and steamy money savers?