Newbold in tunnels

Stefan Newbold (left), engineering manager for the UNL Department of Facilities and Construction, explains the function of the underground tubes to reporter Jake Stahlnecker on March 8, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

With dreadful winters that drag into March, Nebraska can be a harsh place to live. Gray skies loom as cold winds tear across the prairie, and Lincoln’s residents retreat into the warmth of their homes. With academic halls, dorms, apartments and a colossal football stadium, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provides warmth to over 20,000 people every day. Where does it all come from?

Buried beneath the busy streets and grassy fields of UNL’s city campus are 3.2 miles of tunnels that distribute heat generated by the UNL City Campus Utility Plant. Stefan Newbold, engineering manager for the UNL Department of Facilities and Construction was kind enough to give me an informative tour of these facilities and to introduce me to the people who work in them.

As we entered the Utility Plant, Newbold said the tunnels carry steam that is generated in boilers at the utility plant.

“Most campus buildings are heated with steam and cooled with chilled water produced at the utility plants,” Newbold said. “Steam, steam condensate and some chilled water piping is distributed to campus via the tunnels.”

I took in the enormity of the boilers and their monstrous roars, feeling humbled in the presence of so much power. I walked through pipes and switches, lost in a maze of technology that looked like it was from “Star Trek.”

Newbold said the massive boilers produce enough energy to power 7,000 homes. According to Newbold, UNL’s Utility Plant is much more eco-friendly than many schools of its size.

“Most schools in the Big Ten still use coal to power their boilers,” Newbold said. “The University of Nebraska uses natural gas, which is much cleaner.”

While powering the campus might seem like a solely mechanical process, there are many people involved in the day-to-day utilities operations at UNL.

Newbold said there is a whole staff of workers who constantly monitor the different levels of energy being used. He took me to the control room and introduced me to several engineers that oversee operations.

As he showed me the control room, I was blown away by the sheer amount of numbers, computers and statistics the operators oversee. The walls were covered with monitors displaying complex diagrams, and the computer screens were filled with scientific figures that looked like a foreign language to me.

steam tunnels

The UNL utility tunnels under City Campus on March 8, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Newbold said there are many people who perform maintenance on the tunnels and other parts of the heat distribution system. While I did not meet any of these workers, Newbold did show me the tunnels they worked on. As we entered the tunnels, he talked about the role of these maintenance operators. 

“There are numerous steam distribution traps and expansion joints located in the tunnels that require periodic maintenance,” Newbold said. “Occasionally, the tunnels may get some water infiltration during storms.”

As he led me into the steam tunnels, I was shocked by the level of heat that maintenance workers operate in. I could hardly spend five minutes in the sauna-like conditions, while they can spend up to an hour completing technical tasks. I took in the musty smell of dust collected on the tunnel’s floor as I tried to see through the claustrophobic, dingy lighting. I was surprised anything like these tunnels existed in Lincoln.

When many Nebraskans go inside and leave the harsh cold weather behind them, they take the heat for granted. I did so for 18 years. When one looks into where that power comes from, they realize there is a hidden world of brilliant engineers, intricate machines and hard workers who make it happen. Behind every moment of comforting heat, there is an unsung hero working hard to keep the University of Nebraska warm.