Elevator Fumes Close Olin Over Break
Last Thursday, March 22, custodial staff entered Olin Library in the early morning and encountered a strong, noxious odor. The staff contacted Public Safety, who called in workers from Physical Plant and from the Middletown Fire Department, and the library was closed for the day.
The smell was identified as coming from the main elevator motor, where an overheated pump had caused the elevator oil to start burning. The elevator control system, which has circuits that direct the elevator, was set so that the elevator was attempting to move both up and down, Assistant Director of Mechanical Trades Mike Conte explained.
“[Those circuits] connect to the hydraulic pump, which is surrounded by a tank of oil,” Conte said. “It overheated, causing the surrounding oil to start burning.”
The oil was contained in a tank, and was discovered before it had turned into a more serious hazard. While the odor from the overheating oil was strong, it was much less problematic than a full-fledged fire would have been, said University Librarian Pat Tully.
“We really worry about what would have happened if the oil had combusted and we had been closed for a couple of days like we were in the summer,” Tully said.
No one else had been in the library aside for library staff and the custodial staff. One of the custodial workers felt sick from the fumes, and a library worker accompanied her to the hospital. The Fire Department confirmed that the fumes weren’t poisonous, but they were strong enough to circulate throughout the library and mechanical systems.
“The fumes traveled through an electrical tunnel that runs under Church Street [to Exley] and set off the alarm in Exley,” Tully said. “They evacuated Exley at about eight in the morning, just from the fumes from Olin.”
Olin closed for the day because of the intensity of the fumes. Physical Plant brought in SERVPRO Industries to clear out the smell. They brought fans and deodorized the library, which took a couple of days to fully ventilate.
“Physical Plant had done some sealing on all of the windows because they had leaked, so most of the windows were unable to be opened in the building, so that meant it took some more time to air out,” said a library staff member who wished not to be identified.
There are not many current measures in place to protect Olin’s collections from accidental damage. The Special Collections has some precautionary measures in place, but nothing that could protect against a fire or water. The core of the library, where the stacks are located, has the original construction from 1928 when the library opened, and has no sprinkler system in place.
“The best way to protect the books from being damaged is to try to prevent these things from happening,” Tully said.
Physical Plant has replaced all the parts of the elevator motor and pump. They also have included a new temperature reader, which automatically turns off the pump if the surrounding oil begins to overheat again.
“We’ve solved the problem, and made the elevator safer so we won’t have the same situation again,” Conte said.
The main elevator has been in the building since 1952, and has been continually renovated and repaired by the contractor OTIS. Conte is looking into updating the pump and replacing the circuit board. However, new codes have been put in place that prevent the machine room from housing an updated elevator motor.
“The [state] inspector can grant us a waiver to keep the elevator in the machine room,” Conte said. “He would determine whether we were able to go ahead with the modernizations.”
There is a newer elevator located on the side of the stacks, which was added with the 1986 renovations. The newer elevator is the only one that can be used by workers for accessing the “A” level floors in the stacks.
After the recent incident, the elevator was repaired very quickly, allowing the library to continue operating normally. Tully emphasized how helpful Public Safety, Physical Plant, and the Middletown Fire Department were in dealing with the elevator.
“They were very responsive, and very concerned with people’s safety,” Tully said. “I can’t say enough good things about the people who were helping.”