On Halloween weekend, Rodin College House's water system offered far more tricks than treats.
At 11:09 a.m. on Oct. 31, residents were notified by an email from Associate Director of Strategic Planning at Residential and Hospitality Services Nathan Cockrum that water had been cut off in rooms ending in -11 due to "a significant leak." By 10:23 p.m., rooms ending in -12 also lost water.
The next day at 9:57 a.m., water shut off in rooms ending in -13 as well. "We are going backwards in our efforts," Cockrum wrote. Eleven minutes later, things got even worse.
"Unexpectedly we are experiencing a building wide hot water outage," Cockrum wrote.
Hot water was finally restored at 2:05 p.m., capping off a 27-hour odyssey of increasing frantic emails, water shortages and reversals.
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During the late fall and early winter months, leaks, water outages and broken radiators are regular complaints in the Penn College House system due to the frequency of broken and frozen pipes.
This past month alone, Rodin and Harnwell College Houses were affected by multiple water shortages — including, most severely, water from a sewage leak dripping into Harnwell's mezzanine.
These frequent mishaps — usually written off in emails to residents as the fault of a leaky valve or broken pipe — are endemic to a broader neglect of infrastructure within college houses, according to interviews with 10 FRES workers, some with decades of experience responding to maintenance requests from students.
The high rises undergo frequent water shortages, the employees said, because Penn installed a cheap, inefficient water heating system that was ill-fit for a building where residents often shower at similar times. Despite cyclical problems with water shortages and frequent staff complaints, the same inefficient water ventilation system was put into each high-rise building. The employees fear it may be installed in the new college house on Hill Field.
Students reporting no heat in their rooms face a more perilous bureaucratic problem: a tight budget. Employees said they were dissuaded from, and in some cases even instructed not to respond quickly to complaints of "no heat" so FRES management could stay within its allotted budget.
"It's like the management does not care about the students," said Jim, a FRES employee with decades of experience in dealing with ventilation and air conditioners.
Like most of the ten FRES maintenance workers interviewed, Jim declined to use his real name out of fear of being disciplined by his supervisors for speaking to a newspaper.
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The battle between management and the FRES mechanics over declining infrastructure reached a fever point last November, when a series of hot water shortages in the high rises sent enraged employees complaining to their bosses.
A Daily Pennsylvanian article from Nov. 20 reported three hot water shortages in Rodin College House, including two instances where the whole building lost hot water.
The article quoted FRES Executive Director of Operations and Maintenance Ken Ogawa saying, "Ongoing maintenance and repairs such as these are usual in a building that is 40 years old and houses more than 750 people."
"How many times can we apologize? My heart goes out to these kids because their parents are paying so much to live here" -Jim
Behind the scenes, FRES employees said the article caused a stir among management as they urged employees to fix the problem quickly to avoid any continuing bad press.
Jim and Lou, another FRES mechanic, both went to Ogawa and pointed to the overworked, cheap water ventilation system as the cause of continued malfunctions. The high rises have been renovated in recent years, but the water vents haven't been updated.
"They did [the buildings] in stages so they put the same system in each of the high rises. And in all three buildings, the systems they put in are just horrible," Jim said.
Jim went to Paul Ostrander, an operations manager, before the Nov. 20 DP article to express his concerns with the deteriorating water vents in the high-rises.
He urged Ostrander to lobby FRES higher-ups to replace the ventilation system and to ensure that it wasn't put into any new college houses.
Ostrander reportedly rebuffed his concerns, saying that management had hired an engineering firm to look into the cause of the shortages.
Ostrander deferred comment to a FRES spokeswoman, who declined to comment on his behalf.
FRES has hired three different engineering firms to identify the root cause of the shortages, but they have yet to propose a solution.
"Each time we think we've fixed it, we haven't fixed it," Ogawa said in an interview.
After seeing Ostrander, Jim approached Ogawa about the frequent shortages in an attempt to convince him to abandon the engineering firm consultations in favor of a system-wide overhaul.
"[Ogawa's] response was, ‘The building has an old system, and it's a 45-year-old building.' The building itself [is old], but it's just been renovated. All mechanicals and all the systems are less than 10 years old," Jim said.
The employees interviewed believe the use of engineering firms is a wasteful way to mask the systemic inefficiency undergirding the system itself. By opting for piecemeal reform instead of a system-wide overhaul, they think shortages will continue to cyclically occur.
Other mechanics have also reached out to Ogawa directly in an attempt to convince him to replace the high-rise water vents. When Lou met with him, their meeting reportedly took on an aggressive tone.
"[Ogawa] kept telling me, ‘My engineers say it's this.' I kept saying, ‘It's not that.' So two weeks later, [Ogawa] said, ‘The hot water's out,' and I said, ‘Go frig yourself, and call your engineer,'" Lou recalls. "[Ogawa] called me an asshole, basically, because I told him it's not that."
Ogawa, who wouldn't comment specifically on Jim or Lou's remembrances, said that the problem is not related to the age of the building itself.
"We don't believe it's a material condition issue but haven't figured out what the problem is," he said, adding that mechanics and contractors have both made a "number of repairs" in the buildings.
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There is hardly a consensus among University administrators on whether there even is a problem with the water system in the high rises and, if so, how to address it.
Ogawa said that the problem may be related to the division of budgets within Penn Business Services, which hires FRES to perform repairs in residential buildings. There are separate budgets for "maintenance and renovation" and "capital projects." Penn spent $350 million in the last 12 years on capital projects for residential buildings, Executive Director of Business Services Doug Berger said, though it was unclear if this value included extra-budgetary investments.
Despite the employees' argument that the shoddy hot water system is an infrastructure problem, repairs have been limited to the maintenance and renovation budget. If the problem could be designated as a capital projects issue, more resources could be used to address it.
Berger said that, despite the division of budgets, all of the money for maintenance and capital projects comes from Penn Business Services.
Representatives from Penn Business Services also disputed the notion that there was a systemic problem affecting more than one building.
"Our understanding is that we do have a problem in [Harrison College House] that has been difficult to diagnose," said Vice President for Penn Business Services Marie Witt. "It's not across the high rises."
Penn Business Services has not received a request from Ogawa, or anyone else from FRES Operations and Maintenance, to devote more money to fixing the water system in any building.
"I haven't had him come [ask for money] for Harrison," Berger said. "They're still evaluating what it may take [financially]."
Anne Papageorge, the vice president for FRES, was not even aware that there was a concern over the hot water system in residential buildings.
When asked if she had heard that some employees were concerned with the state of the water system, she replied, "I have not. This is actually a surprise to me."
She expressed confusion over why the workers had not brought their worries to her before.
"Why wouldn't they come to me? I don't get it honestly. I have tried to express that I have an open door," she said.
Maintenance workers actually did repeatedly inform their supervisors of their concerns about the hot water system.
In emails acquired by the DP, a former FRES area supervisor reached out to an engineering firm to purchase replacement parts for the hot water system in 2011.
The supervisor emailed his boss, shift operations manager Mike Francis, for approval to purchase the parts, citing the need for the machines to have "redundancy," or duplicate parts to use in case of a leak.
In an email from February 2013, Francis did not give permission to purchase replacement parts. According to Jim, the parts were eventually purchased this year and installed in Harrison and Harnwell, but not in Rodin.
It was unclear why Papageorge was not aware of the conversation among her managers about possible repairs to the water system.
Despite the recent installation of "redundancies" in the water systems in certain buildings, maintenance workers still expressed little faith in the system's ongoing capacity.
"The problem with the high rises and the hot water was shit-poor engineering," Jim said.
Other employees voiced similar criticisms.
"They're not set up for continuous use. In an office building where you don't use them much, they're fine. But they don't work for a 20-story building with high demand. It's just proven. They don't work," said FRES mechanic Mike Patruno, currently on medical leave from work.
The system is clearly complex, but no one seems to be able to — even after years of maintenance repairs — get a handle on possible solutions.
"There's a lot of different components to that system," said Paul Forchielli, the assistant director for residential projects and quality assurance. "The heat exchangers in the basement feed the hot water, but that's not necessarily the only component to the system."
During the course of multiple interviews, FRES employees repeatedly expressed how frustrating it is to be the public face of a dysfunctional system.
"We're the ones that have to keep going back in the same buildings with the same kids three or four times, and it's just like, how many times can we apologize? My heart goes out to these kids because their parents are paying so much to live here," Jim said.
Lou said that his tense encounters with Ogawa and other managers over the hot water shortages incited them to transfer his assignment from the high rises to other residential buildings.
"I'm running out of buildings for them to move me to," he joked.
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Another internal uproar arose over a series of radiator outages last winter.
Jim, who heads a team of six workers, responds to problems with airflow and radiators. Last winter, they had to respond to 150 complaints of no heat.
Jim said his supervisors urged him to delay responding to work requests in order to keep FRES within their allotted maintenance budget.
"They're looking at our budgets and wondering: How can we keep this down?" Jim said. "[They] won't give [us] any overtime. [They'll] just keep deferring maintenance and putting off issues for as long as [they] can."
"The problem with the high rises and the hot water was shit-poor engineering," Jim said."
Jim's frustration boiled over in a conversation with Mike Francis.
"'Would it be acceptable for you guys to wait six days for a service mechanic?'" Jim recalls asking. Francis deferred comment to a FRES spokeswoman, who did not return multiple emails.
Francis reportedly said that budgetary concerns had to restrict the amount of effort Jim's team put into responding to heat shortages.
Jim followed up on his concerns with Ostrander but was again rebuffed due to budgetary constrictions. He was enraged, he said, to hear in June that the budget had a $90,000 surplus.
Ogawa denied that any maintenance requests are delayed or ignored because of budgetary concerns but admitted that budgetary projections in the winter may not align to the result at the end of the fiscal year in June. He confirmed that the past year did run a minimal surplus.
"They stockpile it all year long. They scrimp and save by not providing the students the service that they paid for and cause unhealthy conditions, and then they use that money for something else," Jim said.
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Regardless of their time on the job or mechanical specialty, all employees interviewed reported similar roadblocks and obstructions in FRES' hierarchy of managers. A report to an area manager that goes unheeded often gets passed on to an upper-level supervisor, which eventually reaches Ogawa.
Frustrated employees may jump the chain of command straight to Ogawa which, he admits, may contribute to growing tension between managers and workers.
The employees said that speaking to the DP is their last option, given their concerns for student safety and repeated blockages in management.
"This has been culminating for years. You're our last recourse because we've already gone to management," Jim said.
Other employees said they would have come to the press earlier if not for previous retaliation by management for speaking to reporters.
"We're in jeopardy here. This is my family that's gonna lose out on this deal because I'm trying to protect students," Lou said. "[FRES doesn't] care, but I do. And the more we try to care, the more [FRES] sets us back."
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore from North Wales, Pennsylvania majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. He is the City News Editor-elect of the Daily Pennsylvanian.
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