Meet the Backbone of Penn State, OPP

Sidewalker sweeper clears snow from sidewalk near Old Main
Friday, November 18, 2016

By: Katie Klodowski, OPP Communications Intern

Every day, students and faculty wake up and migrate to campus and go about their lives. Most of us rarely think about the day-to-day events that go on behind the scenes. Rather, we wake up with the expectation the bathrooms will be cleaned, the snow will be cleared, the water will be running, and the electricity will be working. One of the major players behind almost everything that happens at Penn State is the Office of the Physical Plant, commonly called OPP.

Physical Plant is an industry term many companies use to identify their assets. For Penn State, this includes land, buildings, roads, trees, waste, and utilities. I didn’t realize how staggering a project maintaining University Park is until I sat down to talk with Alex Novak, the Communications Manager of the Office of the Physical Plant. Here are some of the details he gave me:

By the Numbers

Back in 1997, there were only 890 OPP employees. Now that the university has grown and the campus is getting older, it takes an army of 1,326 active, full-time employees to keep things running smoothly and to maintain both the aesthetic and the efficiency of Penn State’s campus.

While OPP is a huge operation, Penn State is even bigger. Just in University Park, there are 35 miles of road and 77 miles of sidewalk that have to be maintained. And in OPP’s jurisdiction there are the 17,000 trees that require proper care attention (no fear though, because OPP employs three tree surgeons).

At the main campus, there are 954 buildings with more than 200 acres of roof area (with only 7 roofers to take care of it). These buildings house more than 81,000 acres of space that have to be managed in some way. It takes about 4,000 rags and 250 mops a week to clean all the buildings in University Park. Together with the Penn State Auxiliary Business Service, the Office of the Physical Plant works to keep everything clean and beautiful.

University Park has 1,708 restrooms, 3,529 staircases, 1,550 elevators, 515 classrooms, 2,503 laboratories, 98 loading docks, 119 greenhouses, 14 museums, and 165 locker rooms. Compared to these numbers, the amount of skilled and apprentice workers on the job seems tiny. There are 12 plumbers, 7 roofers, 21 refrigeration techs, 113 utility workers, 16 painters, 44 heating and vent technicians, 7 water analysts, 63 electricians, 3 masons, 23 carpenters, 5 locksmiths, and 6 elevator technicians.

Dealing with the Seasons

Here at Penn State, for better or for worse, we experience all the seasons. This becomes painfully obvious in the winter, and OPP works with the weather to disrupt students as little as possible.

Since the State College population decreases drastically in the summer, those warm months are prime construction and renovation time. Likewise, summer is huge for tree maintenance and anything on campus that would be disruptive come fall.

With the start of the fall semester comes football season. Penn State says there is no such thing as “game day” for OPP — rather, it is “game week.” During the four weeks leading up to the first home game, employees check to make sure everything is working, including thermostats, outlets, lights, toilets, sinks, bun warmers, and fryers. OPP starts preparing for a game the week before, beginning on Monday by tending to work orders and making rounds throughout the stadium. Seasons with numerous home games in a row, like this past one, mean OPP is constantly doing upkeep on the stadium.

Come fall and winter, leaf clean-up and snow removal keep ground crews busy. Last year’s winter, which (so far) has been more brutal than this year’s, was a challenge. However, OPP came prepared with more than 250 workers keeping 11,000 doorways (and steps) and 15,000 parking spaces clear. To do this, they used more than 20 tons of salt.

Roads and pathways have to be completely empty and void of snow. Likewise, when snow strikes at 3 a.m., OPP has to be prepared early to allow for students and faculty to navigate safely onto campus. In order to do this, an elaborate plan is created, where the most important roads and sidewalks are plowed first. The cycle continues until the snow stops falling and pathways are snow-free. In general, it costs Penn State $22,000 to remove just one inch of snow from University Park (compare to New York City, which spends $1,000,000 per inch).

At last year’s final home football game against Michigan State, OPP used 300 shovels, 175 ice buckets, and 73,000 pounds of Ice Melt to clear snow from 106,357 seats and walkways.

At the end of a brutal State College winter, OPP works hard to get campus looking fresh and new as soon as possible. Between 2007 and 2010, OPP planted nearly 30,000 perennials. Since then, they’ve also planted 115,000 bulbs, 36,000 spring flowers, and 75 annuals.

OPP started replacing trees 20 years ago, planting at least one tree for every seedling that died or needed to be cut down. Now, they’ve nearly tripled that ratio and have planted close to 8,500 trees. Of the 17,000 trees in University Park, OPP knows where each one is with its online database.

As a part of the university, the OPP knows about the stress of finals week. Just as they do extra work during the summer, crews refrain from doing projects when they know students need to focus and sleep.

Everything Comes from Penn State

All of the basic amenities students and faculty enjoy every day are generated, used, and reused right here in State College. “One thing that students may not be aware of is that all the heat on campus is created at the West Campus Steam Plant and the East Campus Steam Plant,” Novak said.

The plants, which have been coal powered since the 1920s, are being converted over to natural gas. The last truck of coal will come and the last shovel of coal will go into the boiler this March, signaling the beginning of a greener system at Penn State.

Everything we wake up and expect to have is created on or within miles of campus. There are two power plants, a water treatment plant, a waste water treatment plant, and a chilled water system. The steam from the two power plants is distributed through 17 miles of underground pipes.

Having all the utilities within an arms reach of campus means OPP has an all-encompassing view of how campus actually works. They can tell when the temperature is too hot in a specific building and when there may be problems with another building. They have knowledge of things they perhaps don’t even want to know — Novak says that employees at the waste water treatment plant know when it’s half-time at a football game because of the surge of incoming water.

The complexity of what OPP does isn’t completely visible to most students. All of Penn State’s utilities form an intertwining network of water, electricity, telecommunication, steam, and chilled water (among others) that in turn create an underground system Novak describes as “a city under a city.” When something breaks, OPP is on the scene, above or below ground, to fix it.

Big Problems and Small Problems

Problems happen when you least expect them. OPP’s Work Control Center processed 181,000 work orders in 2014. There were 36,000 service calls and 900 requests for new keys or re-keying. However, not all problems are created equal; a burst pipe is obviously more urgent than a broken light bulb. Because of the sheer number of requests, the Work Control Center has to rank the requests in order of importance. In order to be prepared at all times, they remain open 24/7, utilizing three different shifts of people.

With thousands of people on campus, it goes without saying OPP has been called upon to deal with some pretty funny and bizarre things. One example Novak gave was a custodian who was working a night shift and spotted a coyote on campus. The custodian noticed the coyote was staggering around, but not from a night on frat row. As an avid hunter, he thankfully knew this was a sign of rabies. From there, he called the University Police who were able to contact experts and address the problem.

However, that wasn’t the first time the office has been called on to deal with an animal-related incident and it certainly won’t be the last. In the winter of 2014, a duck was walking across the pavement during some freezing rain when its feet got stuck. Initially notified via Twitter, an OPP employee showed up and freed the duck by pouring some hot water on the pavement around its feet.

All of the events that take place on campus are usually connected with the physical plant in some way — things you wouldn’t even think of. For example, when color runs started to become a trend, the OPP would have to find a way to deal with the corn starch, which absorbs water, running and being sent to the treatment plant. Since the initial runs, plastic covers are now laid down in order to prevent the colored corn starch from being introduced into a system which can’t take it.

From the biggest buildings to the smallest animals, the physical plant deals with it all. When dealing with problems, Novak says that OPP’s job is interesting because, “you go from this macro scale of doing huge projects on campus to answering tweets from people asking to free ducks that are stuck in places and asking if they should feed the squirrels.”

Out with the Old, In with the New

There are some definite draw backs to having 13 million square feet on campus. Namely, that 9 million of those square feet are more than 35 years old. More concerning is the fact the average living space at University Park is 52 years old (hence the renovations). Over five years, OPP plans to spend $96 million in upgrades and renovations at University Park.

One of the main questions OPP grapples with is when to repair something versus when to rebuild it. According to Novak, it is a delicate balancing act. “There is a lot of institutional knowledge — there are many people that have been here more than 35 years who remember when things broke the last time, and they can predict when they will break again,” Novak said.

Novak brought up the term “swing space,” which is where things go when they are not being used. When dorms get renovated, all the students have to go somewhere. Life can’t stop just because a building needs to be updated.

Another example he gave was the steam plants, which are moving towards natural gas. The plants have to remain in use while also functioning at a high level. When describing the art of constantly renovating and reviving an aging campus, Novak equates it to changing a car’s tires while it’s moving.

Additionally, many buildings on campus are old and have historical value. The newly renovated Burrowes Building, for example, presented a challenge because it can sometimes be difficult to maintain the history while also doing necessary upgrades and renovations.

Not only does it fix things, OPP also plans, designs, and builds things. It oversees the architectural design of every new building, addition, and renovation. With 23 planners, 50 facilities supervisors, 11 registered architects, 18 designers, 40 licensed engineers, and 21 project managers, OPP is constantly working to create and improve campus.

Since keeping up such a huge campus is clearly a difficult task, it’s a wonder OPP doesn’t get more recognition. However, maybe that’s how they want it to be. According to Novak, “If nobody notices that we’re here, that means that everything is going smoothly.”

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