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Discover UC top to bottom

From McMicken's cupola to UC's utility plant, maintenance room and steam tunnels, here are some views you've likely never seen.

by John Bach

Everyone recognizes McMicken Hall's cupola from the outside. But have you ever wondered what it looked like from the inside? Are you curious about that industrial-looking facility at Jefferson and Martin Luther King? And surely you've heard rumors about tunnels under UC. Care for a glance?

McMicken's cupola photo/Lisa Ventre

McMicken's cupola. Photo/Lisa Ventre

University heights

Practically no place on campus offers such a panoramic view of the University of Cincinnati and its neighbors as the inside of McMicken Hall's historic cupola. Higher in elevation even than Crosley Tower, the steeple has literally looked down upon campus since its host building was completed along UC's academic ridge in 1950. Perhaps only Mick and Mack, the stone lions at McMicken's entrance, have graced more UC publications and brochures than the familiar spire.
Access inside the steeple is restricted, but those with the appropriate set of keys enter through a steel door in the cupola's grated floor.

Daylight pours into the quiet octagonal space through eight narrow windows, and floodlights emit the warm glow passersby see from the ground at night.

Utility tunnel entrance. Top, tunneling under MLK, 1983 photo/Dottie Stover

Tunneling under Martin Luther King Drive, 1983.

UC underground

A man leaves McMicken Hall during a snowstorm and walks hundreds of feet to Baldwin Hall without leaving a single track. Do you know how he does it?

Answer: The tunnel.

Like many large college campuses, UC has an extensive network of underground utility tunnels. One of the main channels passes beneath Martin Luther King Drive to create a subterranean connection between East Campus and West. The concrete tunnels branch off in various areas to connect the basement of one building to the next and beyond. The complete grid totals more than two miles. Utilities workers sometimes use the underground system during bad weather, but the key function of the tunnels is to serve as a conduit for steam pipes, chilled water and other utility lines.

Utility tunnel entrance. Top, tunneling under MLK, 1983 photo/Dottie Stover

Utility tunnel entrance. Photo/Dottie Stover

"The tunnels at UC go back to the late '60s and '70s," says Everett Wolverton, utilities director. "They were added when there was a lot of growth, and there was need for more utilities. Today they come in handy for our people who have to inspect the pipes or perform maintenance."

Though many may have accessed the tunnels in years past, authorities say the days of curious students and others tunneling under UC are over. To Wolverton's chagrin, Web sites that promote the pop-culture pastime as "urban caving, hacking and draining" have even published maps and photos of UC's tunnel system.

"Students were finding their way down there," he says. "The tunnels were pretty accessible then, but they have been secure for the last five years."

He says the only tunnels open for general use are those on East Campus that allow medical professionals to travel between academic buildings and University Hospital.

Color-coded pipe dream photo/Andrew Higley

Color-coded pipe dream. Photo/Andrew Higley

Pipe dream

If you like makeover stories, you'll love the University of Cincinnati's maintenance room on the first floor of French Hall. The bright, clean and colorful utility area is one of about 75 on West Campus undergoing dramatic changes to increase safety and boost employee morale.

The challenge is to improve every maintenance area by painting the entire room, including the floor and the complex network of utility pipes that supply every building on campus.

"We are color coding all the pipes so, in the event of an emergency, we would be able to identify them in a timely manner in order to shut them down quickly," says Don Connley, assistant vice president of administrative and business services. "Also, if you walk into a mechanical room and it is all spruced up, you get the impression that you should really take care of the place."

Facilities management employees paint the pipes in their spare time, Connley says, a task that has spurred friendly competition from one building to the next for the best-looking job.

The end result is a rainbow of supply and return lines -- each one carefully brushed or rolled one of nine different colors that represent industry standards for chilled water, smoke, steam, condensation, domestic cold water, domestic hot water, gas and compressed air.

Top: combustion turbine engine. Utility plant Top photo/ Don Davidson Below/Andrew Higley

Combustion turbine engine. Photo/Don Davidson

Power boost

When it comes to UC's hidden treasures, some are more valuable than others. A set of combustion turbine power generators, for example, will cut UC's energy bill by roughly $4.5 million dollars a year.

Students, faculty and staff didn't notice, but when the turbines first fired last February as part of the $63 million Central Utility Plant expansion, the university actually began generating its own electric power.

"Before this, we bought 100 percent of our power from Cinergy," says Wolverton. "Now we produce 90 percent of our own power."

Top: combustion turbine engine. Utility plant Top photo/ Don Davidson Below/Andrew Higley

Utility plant. Photo/Andrew Higley

The turbines inside the plant at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Jefferson combust a mixture of natural gas and air to spin a massive generator, he explains. The exhaust, which is recaptured for steam generation, also passes through filters that remove carbon monoxide and harmful chemicals.

Self-sufficiency is not a novel idea at the university, given that it has been producing its own heating and cooling for years by generating both steam and chilled water. Energy efficiency has remained a top priority, as well.

A perfect example is the 3.5-million-gallon underground storage tank that was installed on East Campus along Eden Avenue in 1997. The 80-foot-square by 60-foot-deep concrete tank is filled with chilled water at night when energy rates and demand are low. The water then gets pumped out to buildings across campus during the day to meet cooling demands, Wolverton says, saving UC an additional half million dollars a year.