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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The fault in our radiators

Published: December 5, 2014
Section: Opinions

It’s getting colder here on campus, and as the mercury goes down, more and more students are turning on their heating systems. Unfortunately, for far too many of us, that means rattling pipes, oppressive temperatures and frequent work orders. Our current heating systems, especially in our older residence halls, are in desperate need of an upgrade, and if we don’t act soon, the problems will become even worse.

What we overwhelmingly have here at Brandeis is called forced hot-water heating in which boiling water is forced through exposed pipes to heat the air around it. Though state of the art when many residence halls were built, these systems haven’t aged well and have been outclassed by more modern heating methods. The energy required to heat water, then transport it across a building and possibly up several floors, and then have it heat air means that quite a bit of heat is wasted. This significantly lowers the fuel efficiency of our buildings, burning excess fossil fuels and wasting energy when the university should be focused on reducing its carbon footprint.

Beyond the system’s environmental impacts, our current heating systems are also generally difficult to use. Because the system works by forcing scalding water into the heating system, the only thing that can be controlled is how much water flows through the system. Although this does allow for some temperature control, the system tends to heavily heat a room no matter what setting it’s on, leading to either a freezing room with no heat or an incredibly hot room. This further wastes energy and can make students uncomfortable in their rooms.

The systems also tend to build up sand inside the pipes, which can be very labor intensive to clean out. This costs the university quite a bit of money in maintenance, since the pipes regularly clog, and wastes the time of maintenance workers who could be doing something more important. Beyond that, the sediment that builds up in the pipes can disrupt the flow of the water even if the pipes don’t clog. This causes the pipes to rattle, disrupting sleep and being generally annoying, as anyone in an older residence hall, such as in Massell, can attest.

The most pressing concern, however, is how these problems will change over time. The majority of our heating systems are rather old, and as they age, the systems tend to break down more quickly. Pipes can begin to leak, can fill with sediment more quickly, and the systems will become even less energy efficient. Over time, our residence halls are approaching a tipping point, at which the costs of maintaining our current systems become unbearable.

We don’t have to have heating systems like this. Our newer residence halls, for instance, contain central air heating, in which warm air is fed directly into a room. These newer systems use far less energy and are significantly more user-friendly, as they allow for a variety of different temperatures and never produce the low rattling so many of us have gotten used to. In addition, these systems don’t contain pipes, so they cannot clog and require significantly less maintenance. This will both save the university money and allow for maintenance workers to focus on more pressing issues.

All the benefits above are great, but if the university cannot afford to pay for them then they aren’t particularly useful. In order to install central air in our older residence halls, it certainly would be expensive. Ducts are larger than pipes, and would require structural work to install. For these reasons, I’m not advocating for the immediate replacement of all our university’s old heating systems. Instead, we can focus on a longer-term maintenance plan to update the systems. Especially as our current heating systems age, more and more maintenance will be required. At some point, the maintenance costs of the old system will become larger than those of installing a newer system, and at that time the upgrades should be installed. This will allow the university to save money for the installation costs, as well as spreading the costs over multiple budget cycles. This will allow the current system to become much more efficient and effective.

When the defining feature of a Brandeis winter is rattling pipes, one knows there’s a problem. It’s time for our university to adopt a plan and refurbish our outdated heating systems. It’s critically important for us to update our heating systems, lest we face any more problems.