Manholes of fury

As Devin Peterson turned the corner, he faced a decision that is thrust upon every student who walks more than two blocks on Main Campus: sewer steam or incoming traffic. He chose the latter –

As Devin Peterson turned the corner, he faced a decision that is thrust upon every student who walks more than two blocks on Main Campus: sewer steam or incoming traffic.

He chose the latter – and lived to tell about it.”I don’t know what the hell the stuff is,” the freshman said. “It grosses me out!”

Like a minefield of “sewers” lining campus sidewalks, more and more students
are either avoiding the manholes or holding their breath, unsure of what substance they could possibly be inhaling.

“I feel like I’m walking through a vapor of dead bodies. It smells [bad],” said Dave Radolovic, a freshman architecture major. “I hold my breath when I walk through.

“You can begin to exhale. Despite popular belief that the odorous sewer stench is a byproduct of some late-night pizza binging by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Trigen-Philadelphia takes all the credit.

The company is responsible for the steam distribution system, which according to its Web site, “has a total steam generation capacity in excess of 3.9 million pounds per hour of steam capacity, and provides steam to customers for air conditioning purposes to produce approximately 5,000 tons of chilled water.”

Trigen-Philadelphia’s vice president
and general manager Kevin Brown said that although often considered an eyesore, the system is actually an intricate
web. “There are 30 miles of insulated pipe buried underground. They convey steam to many buildings [in Philadelphia],”
he said. “Five hundred manholes connect the pipes together. Many times when you see steam vapor coming out of a manhole, water is coming into contact with a secondary steam.”

“It looks like pollution coming out of the earth,” Sarah Sivilich, a sophomore
anthropology major, said. “It just reminds me of sewage.

“But with this steam, Trigen is able to provide their customers with heat, air conditioning, humidification and domestic hot water.

Trigen contends it can supply low-cost heating with the steam. According to its Web site, “Trigen can design a system
that works efficiently with steam as its fuel source.

“The company also claims steam is a much cheaper way to run air conditioning
than the current archetype. “Steam cooling can dramatically reduce electricity costs by minimizing a building’s peak electric demand. By gathering the water that collects as a steam by-product, Trigen enables customers to recapture and recycle the water to help heat the domestic water supply. The result is virtually free hot water.

“But those walking outside see nothing but a ventilation system that may be hazardous.

Shelby Sparrow makes sure to walk around the manholes. “I don’t know what’s coming out of it,” the senior business major said. “I don’t know what produces it.”

“I don’t ever walk through,” Phoenicia
Williams, a senior business major said. “It’s bad for your skin.”

“I just think of it as hot water, but I make sure to walk around them because it might pose a hazard to my health” graduate law student Elliot Kozolchyk said.

Because the manholes are exposed to extreme heat and moisture, they need to be monitored closely. Brown said workers underground check them daily. “We work closely with the city to identify leaks [in the pipes],” he said. When there are leaks or broken pipes, Trigen installs tall, chimney-like pipes called stacks. One of these stacks is currently located on campus at the corner of 12th and Norris streets.

“Water from pipes follows the path of least resistance. Water comes in contact
with hot steam pipes and flashes off steam vapor,” Brown said. “Think of it as a tea kettle; you’re putting water against a hot surface. The stacks are there to protect the public. They vent [the steam] above pedestrian level so no one can be burnt and the steam won’t obstruct anyone’s view,” Brown explained.

In August 2004 there was no stack to protect Elizabeth Wallenberg. The 26-year-old fell off of her skateboard onto a steam manhole in New York City, leaving her with scarring burns on her lower back and left arm.Brown said he was not familiar with this event.

“The steam is only vapor, so it’s not hazardous to anyone’s health,” Brown said.

“The only thing it can do – it may just ruin someone’s hairdo.”

Staff writer Tyson McCloud contributed to this report.
Jeff Appelblatt can be reached at

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