This past Saturday, Feb. 22, a power outage took hold of half of campus, leaving several buildings and dorms in the dark throughout the night and into Sunday morning. Buildings and Grounds restored power to campus at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, citing a degraded piece in the electrical system as the cause.
The first signs of a power outage came at 5:22 p.m. Saturday evening. The fitness center was experiencing trouble with its air-conditioning system. Later, around 8 p.m., a string of lights went out along Kenyon Drive, including those in the Wimpfheimer Nursery on north campus. Minutes later, calls flooded the Campus Response Center reporting a series of power outages that included Jewett, Noyes, Joss, Cushing, Main and the Terrace Apartments, among other buildings.
According to Manager of Mechanical Services and Building Trades David Bishop, Vassar’s electrical power is organized in a high-voltage loop that covers the entirety of campus including senior housing. The loop is designed to preserve as much electricity as possible on campus in the event of an emergency. If part of the system goes down, the rest of the campus is protected.
As Bishop explained, “Think of our high voltage loop as a circle with multiple switches—like a light switch, only much bigger. We can supply the entire loop through either of the two main switches from Central Hudson. We normally keep the loop open in the middle, but have about 30 places we can open the loop with the switches. This provides our electricians with a great deal of flexibility in being able to minimize the buildings affected if we have a component fail.”
Bishop continued, “We also have 16 emergency generators that supply electricity to some of the buildings on campus automatically when they sense a loss of electric power. This past weekend, emergency generators ran for our central heating plant, the computer center, Blodgett and Jewett Hall. The system is perfectly designed to optimize our response in case of an emergency.”
This explains the result on Saturday night when many buildings retained power despite the blackout. During the incident, Acting Dean of the College Eve Dunbar sent out three emails to the campus explaining that the College was working to fix the problem and that students could find shelter in any of the remaining lit buildings.
At 3 a.m., Building and Grounds, in addition to the College’s electrical supervisors, discovered the cause of the blackout. The original failure in the system that caused the shutdown of the power system took place in-between electrical manholes 8 and 10, which are near Baldwin and Blodgett Buildings. The high-voltage loop that runs across campus that is made up of three cords and a degraded piece caused two of those three cords to become inoperable. The broken piece had been degrading since the system was updated last in 2001.
Once the cause of the blackout had been identified, Buildings and Grounds isolated the problem area. The degraded piece was replaced the next day at 9 a.m.
The power outage coincided with several events on campus, most notably Jewett House’s all-campus event, Jewett House Presents: Seven Deadly Sins. The Facebook event listed over 400 people planning to attend. Because of the blackout, the event was cancelled. President of Jewett Tewa Kpulun ’15 spoke to the feelings of her house team in response to the cancellation.
“We were setting up last minute details when the power went out, and security was already there, being that the power went out 30 minutes before the event. We kept on setting up because the backup generator came on, however, we were soon notified that none of the upper level floors had power,” she said.
She continued, “We didn’t give up hope on the event until we were told by Residential Life, Kelly [Grab] our [House Adviser], that no power meant no party.”
In addition to Jewett, several other dorms lost power, including Joss, Noyes and Cushing. For these buildings, house teams were on call in order to ensure the safety of students still in the dark dorms. In several of these houses, the power outage caused a failure of the buildings fire alarm system, and house team members were asked to make patrols, checking for fire risks like candles, smoking inside or doors left propped open.
Joss House Team member Arisa Gereda ’16 said, “House Team’s job during the blackout was essentially to be on fire watch, since the fire safety system was out as well. We all signed up for two-hour shifts, from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m., in which we would check out each floor and make sure nothing fishy was going on.”
She went on, describing the scene. “The people that we saw, although very few, were mostly unaffected by the power out and carried on with their nights, only bummed about Seven Deadly Sins. Joss House in general was quiet, empty and definitely creepy. Mainly in reference to the basement,” she explained.
Kpulun confirmed this, saying, “We quickly switched from being party hosts to fire watch.”
Though the house team patrols were an ordeal for those involved, many appreciated the way in which both house teams and the Vassar community in general came together in response to the blackout.
As Gereda said, “Overall, I was very impressed with our House Team’s effective and quick response on a Saturday night. I was also impressed and very thankful for [the] Joss House community as a whole, respecting the seriousness of the power [outage] and keeping our home safe.”
Kpulun echoed this sentiment. “I am truly grateful to be working with such an amazing group of people who can adapt to anything life throws at them. I do not know what Jewett will be doing for the rest of the semester party-wise, but we are a resilient group of people and not having this party is not the worst thing that could happen,” she said.