20, No. 13, Feb. 1, 2001
work by campus crews restores power after fire at Abbott Power Plant
causes widespread outage
Chamberlain, News Bureau Staff Writer
(217) 333-2894; email@example.com
by Bill Wiegand
|Up in smoke
inspeccts the charred remains of the 13,800-volt switch-gear-panel
at Abbott Power Plant. The panel was badley damaged in an
explosion and fire Jan. 26 that resulted in a loss of power
and heat for much of the campus.
A campus that has
weathered blizzards and severe cold without canceling a class, but which
also depends on electric power to get almost anything done, got a lesson
in humility Jan. 26.
In the wake of an explosion and fire at the Abbott Power Plant about
8:20 a.m., which required the complete shutdown of power running through
the plant, faculty, staff and students in probably three-quarters of
campus buildings found themselves without the use of computers, copiers,
fax machines and electric light.
Almost all campus buildings were without steam because electrical equipment
damaged in the fire required the shutdown of three coal-fired boilers
in operation at the time.
By mid-morning, as a result, classes had been canceled for the day in
all but a few buildings, and many employees were being told they could
go home. Plans were being made to reschedule evening events at Krannert
Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere, and contingencies were
being considered for 8,700 students in university residence halls that
potentially could be without heat for several days.
But despite the damage and disruption caused by the fire, extinguished
by the Champaign Fire Department about 9:35 a.m., electric power was
restored to some of the affected buildings starting about 11:30 a.m.,
according to Terry Ruprecht, chief facilities officer for the campus.
All of the affected residence halls had power restored by 2:30 p.m.
The buildings getting power were on a grid fed through power plant equipment
not damaged in the explosion.
Gas boilers that had been off-line were fired up starting at 12:30 p.m.
and steam was slowly flowing back into the campuswide system by mid-afternoon.
By early evening, heat was slowly returning to campus buildings.
By 10 p.m., the steam system was at full capacity, and at about 11:45
p.m. Friday, power was restored to the rest of the campus still left
in the dark. (Campus workers, in fact, had to spend a lot of time that
night shutting off lights.)
As of Saturday morning, the campus was almost back to normal, thanks
to luck, skills and teamwork, according to Ruprecht. "I feel were
extraordinarily fortunate that were where we are and were there
by Saturday morning," he said this past Monday.
On the side of good fortune, Ruprecht noted that no one was injured
in the explosion and fire that destroyed three of 12 switch-gear enclosures,
and damaged two others, in a 13,800-volt panel at the power plant. The
explosion likely was caused by an arc in one of the high-voltage devices,
which Ruprecht described as very large circuit breakers. The precise
cause has not been determined.
Colder, more January-like temperatures would have caused more problems
in the recovery, he said. "Had it been 15-20 degrees colder, wed
have been in a significantly different situation." Water lines
likely would have been freezing in some locations, and the two available
boilers would not have been able to meet the full demand for heat.
Normal winter temperatures require three boilers in operation, Ruprecht
said, but the damage to the switch-gear panel meant the three coal-fired
boilers could not be used, and one of the three gas boilers was undergoing
Although luck played a role, Ruprecht chiefly credited the skills and
efforts of Operation and Maintenance and other UI staff for the speed
of the recovery.
"We have a number of very, very technically-capable people in O&M,
and quite frankly have spent the last 10 years trying to assure that
we had the right combination of people in terms of skills and knowledge
and everything else, and that was borne out in an extraordinary way
"It took a lot of different people, skilled trades, engineers,
people on the power plant staff, people all the way around, that had
to pull together in a very stressful situation."
The situation called for "a myriad of small decisions all during
and there were just a lot of very good decisions made
on Friday," Ruprecht said. "The layman will never understand
how much work had to be done in order to get that system back up in
that amount of time."
For students in university housing other than Orchard Downs,
which was not affected the falling temperatures through the day
caused some discomfort for residents, according to Jack Collins, director
The dining halls, most of which are surrounded by large windows and
therefore lose more heat, were cold for lunch and colder by the start
of dinner. Hot water was not available for showers. There also was no
hot water for cooking, though that actually required few changes in
the menu, Collins said.
Housing staff took blankets out of storage and made them available to
anyone who wanted one, and made plans for a cool night. But room temperatures
were probably back to normal by late evening.
The real problems would have started if the steam had still been off
by Saturday morning, Collins said. Then the housing staff would have
been arranging temporary housing for thousands of students, and in fact
they had spent much of Friday anticipating that.
The e-mail system also was a temporary casualty of Fridays power
outage, though it probably mattered little to many who didnt have
working computers to read it by.
The campus lost its Internet connection for about three hours, according
to Bob Penka, interim director of the Computing and Communications Services
Office (CCS0), but only because a backup generator that should have
maintained the connection failed. The connection was restored when power
was restored to part of the campus around 11:30 a.m.
The other interruption was at the central e-mail service, which accepts
incoming mail for the campus and posts outgoing mail. Most of the servers
there went down with the power, though backup servers in a building
fed directly by Illinois Power continued to function, Penka said.
"The mail was just written to disk and saved until the network
was alive and the machines to which the mail was to be sent were speaking
again," he said.
In both cases, with the Internet connection and the central e-mail service,
the mail was being spooled and saved for later delivery, Penka said.
"No one should have lost e-mail through any of the equipment we
operate," he said.
The e-mail system was largely back to normal operation by 5:30 p.m.
As for the damage to the power plant, Ruprecht said a representative
from the insurance company was on campus the day of the fire, and a
cost estimate was expected within a week.