Steady Under Pressure: How Building Operations Keeps Campus Flowing

Water is a crucial resource at UBC, for basic human needs and to support research and operations. The simple act of turning on a tap to access a safe and reliable water supply is something students, faculty, and staff depend on each and every day.

Although UBC isn’t technically a municipality, in many ways it operates like one — maintaining a vast infrastructure and supplying our own services, including waste management, energy generation and distribution, and infrastructure development. Managing our water alone is an intricate process involving staff members from Building Operations and partners from across UBC’s VP Finance & Operations portfolio (VPFO). These individuals work in concert every day to ensure the university has a clean, safe, and sustainable resource on tap — by procuring, securing, testing, delivering, financially managing, and safely disposing of the university’s water. Through this work we enable excellence at UBC, by making sure water is available to support world-class research, to heat and cool our buildings, to water our campus living lab, and to be ready to drink.

Water makes its campus entrance

UBC’s water is purchased from Metro Vancouver, and sourced from rain and melted snow in the mountainous watersheds that surround the city. Metro Vancouver tests and treats the water, then it travels many kilometres through pipes to the Sasamat storage reservoir in Pacific Spirit Park, adjacent to UBC.

Our water enters the Vancouver campus through two trunk water mains. A pipe 600 mm in diameter runs below University Boulevard, and a 300 mm pipe enters below West 16th Avenue. The 600 mm pipe heads straight for the Power House at 2040 West Mall, where booster pumps increase the water pressure for distribution to the student residences and academic buildings in the north part of campus. The taller buildings in this zone need their water under higher pressure to reach upper floors in the event of a fire. The 300 mm pipe mostly supplies residential buildings and student residences along Lower Mall. Water arrives through the 300 mm main at sufficient pressure to service the shorter buildings in this zone. From those two entry points, water is distributed across campus through over 80 km of pipes and service connections.

Past the backflow: managing the flow of water in our buildings

Once water enters a building, it becomes the responsibility of UBC Building Operations. Sub-head plumber Paul McLaughlin, who has been with UBC for 13 years and oversees a crew of 20, notes the importance of having an in-house team of plumbers, engineers and technicians in the VPFO. “We know how everything works,” Paul says. “Everybody knows the buildings, and we know the people within buildings — that’s huge.”

A vital aspect of the job is maintaining what’s known as the cross-connection control program, which ensures that water diverted to non-domestic uses like irrigation, boilers, fire prevention, and cooling towers, does not re-enter the drinking water system. In the event of a drop in water pressure, scores of backflow preventing devices across campus ensure that doesn’t happen. Maintaining and testing this complex system is essential for avoiding contamination of UBC’s water supply.

Underscoring the importance of having deep institutional knowledge to safeguard the system is Jason White, P.Eng, a UBC graduate and mechanical technical specialist for Building Operations. “The campus is a very complex place, and it’s hard to find things even if you work here,” Jason says. “In the beginning I couldn’t even find the water entry room where the backflow preventers are located. Having long-term employees helps — they know the buildings inside out, they have quick access to them.”

Paul notes the importance of his Building Operations team working closely with the crew at Energy & Water Services. “We collaborate on a lot of different things,” Paul says. “They sometimes need our team to help them and, in turn, we need their team to help us. We work in tandem on a lot of projects. It’s definitely a team thing.”

The VPFO is responsible for stewardship of UBC’s physical and financial assets, including all facilities as well as the university budget and endowment. The services provided by the 1200+ individuals who report to the portfolio enable UBC’s excellence in learning and research.

In addition to Building Operations and Energy & Water Services, teams from VPFO’s finance and Safety & Risk Services departments, are critical to keeping our water systems flowing. Read the full feature on Water at UBC on the VPFO website.