Ingenuity, experience & skill (& more than a little muscle)

September 2, 2011 by

To have some sense of the size of the underground "boiler room," note maintenance supervisor Renn Allsman reaching up to the scaffolding where Brad Snyder is standing, with Jim Helton just inside the tunnel behind him. Floor to ceiling measures roughly 20 feet.

After hauling the new 6-inch steel pipe sections to the back entry of the cellar, the first task was sliding each 400-pound piece down the long and steep concrete stairway.

Take a crew of men with decades of experience among them, throw in more than a little ingenuity and a keen eye on costs and then ask them to come up with a solution for the kind of problem you find only in buildings more than a century old. What you end up with is an elegant, if unglamorous, method of replacing more than 100 feet of 104-year-old steel pipe, buried in an underground tunnel accessible only from a scaffold in an equally old stone cellar.

The challenge facing the maintenance crew at the Nazareth Motherhouse in Concordia was daunting: They needed to replace the original steel pipe that runs from the below-ground room that was built in 1907 for coal-fired boilers to under the auditorium on the south side of the Motherhouse. The original boilers were replaced with natural gas boilers in the 1960s, and then those were replaced two much smaller but much higher efficiency models in 2003.

The remaining piece of the original system was the 10-inch pipe, and the crew had already cut out and replaced two sections to repair leaks. They had enough experience to know the century-old steel would continue to deteriorate; the time had come for a new 6-inch pipe.

Once they had each section down the stairs, the crew lifts the end onto a dolly and maneuvered it through the doorway and into the cellar. They used the engine lift in the foreground to move each section once they got it into the room.

In all likelihood, the old pipe was installed in a trench and then the tunnel to house it was built around it and covered with dirt and, eventually, asphalt for the back parking lot. The tunnel itself is roughly 5½ feet high at the south end, and narrowing to about 4 feet high once it reaches the Motherhouse.

So in 2011, the crew had to figure a way to get the old pipe out of the tunnel, then how to get the new 21-foot pipe sections — each weighing about 400 pounds — down a steep flight of stairs into the cellar, through a doorway and turned 90 degrees, then lifted about 12 feet to the tunnel opening and finally moved into the tunnel for assembly along the 100 feet to the Motherhouse.

Brad Snyder, left, and Jim Helton pause as they hoist one of the last sections of new pipe up 12 feet to the tunnel opening.

This is where the ingenuity comes in.

Maintenance supervisor Renn Allsman said his crew — Jim Helton, Brad Snyder, Curtis Mansfield and Keith Sells — “brainstormed” various solutions that would be both efficient and safe.

The first solution was installing a track much like that used for barn doors on the entire length of the tunnel’s ceiling. That allowed Helton and Snyder to cut the old pipe into chunks about 4 feet long, then raise each section up with chains to connect to the track and slide it to the tunnel opening.

With the old pipe removed, the next solution required a little more muscle. With boards covering the concrete steps, a chain with a hook on the end was threaded through each section of the new pipe and attached to an electric winch. The pipe was then lowered slowly down the wooden “slide” with the winch controlling its speed and men keeping it headed straight down.

While it took the entire maintenance crew to get the new pipe to the tunnel, Helton and Snyder did the actually assembly in the 100-foot long space.

At the bottom of the stairs, the front end was lifted on to a dolly to move it through the doorway and into the main room of the cellar. Once there, the hook and chain were pulled free and a strap placed around the center of the pipe so it could be lifted with an engine hoist and turned 90 degrees to stack on the floor.

Once all the pipe sections were in the cellar, the hoist lifted each one enough that it could be tipped up to the opening, some 12 feet off the floor, and slid into tunnel. The track then allowed Helton and Snyder to lift each section again and move it down the length of the tunnel to where it was bolted to the next section.

While Helton and Snyder did all the work in the tunnel, it took the ingenuity — and muscle — of the entire crew, plus some help from grounds staff employee Zach Balthazor, to get the pipe in place.

The crew worked on the project as time was available through most of July and August.

“This is not the kind of job that most maintenance crews would tackle,” said Motherhouse facilities administrator Greg Gallagher, “but our guys knew they could figure out a way to do it.”

When this brick building was added just behind the Motherhouse in 1907, the ground floor was the laundry room and the cellar below it housed huge coal-fired boilers. Today, the above-ground portion of the building is home to Sister Cecilia Green's crafts workshop and a maintenance shop, while two much smaller natural gas boilers are housed in the cellar below.


5 Responses to “Ingenuity, experience & skill (& more than a little muscle)”

  1. Jean Ann Walton on September 20th, 2011 9:52 pm

    OMG! I didn’t realize there was anything under the old laundry. Hats off to our maintenace guys.

  2. Loretta Jasper on September 6th, 2011 4:07 pm

    My curiosity is brimming over…THE TUNNEL!!! The space seems gynormous, and so hidden to the above ground eye.

  3. Helen Mick on September 5th, 2011 6:56 pm

    What a gifted, creative crew! And such an interesting article on their work. Many thanks.

  4. Jean Befort on September 4th, 2011 4:29 pm

    Saran, thanks for such an interesting and intriguing rendition of the story one would never be privy to many except through someone as greatly skilled at writing, and curious as you are!!! I loved it!

    Great & responsible maintenance staff too!

  5. Jodi Creten on September 4th, 2011 6:44 am

    There is no task too big for our dedicated and committed maintenance men. Great job, guys!

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