USask facilities staff restored power after lengthy outage

When the power went out at 10:45 pm on October 21, 2019, facilities staff couldn’t have known it would be the longest, and most significant power outage in the history of the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

By Ashley Dopko

Regardless, the USask team in facilities quickly jumped into action as emergency power kicked in. It wasn’t long after that SaskPower informed them that a collision on 8th Street had cut out the main line that provides power to the university.

“Once the team learned which line was affected, we knew we were in for a long night,” said Wade Epp, associate vice-president, services. The team of facilities experts was quickly called in to manage and maintain emergency power across campus, supporting life-safety systems and critical research infrastructure.

“When something like this happens, our first thought is always safety,” said Epp. “At our Saskatoon campus, that not only includes the safety of our students, staff, faculty and research animals, but also the patients at Royal University Hospital and Jim Pattison’s Children Hospital.”

The university’s emergency power supports a number of buildings, including the heating plant which provides heat and steam to over eight million square feet of building space across campus. That includes the hospitals on campus, which do have their own backup generators, but still rely on USask for heating their buildings and for the steam to sterilize equipment.

“Our team knows the importance of the services we provide, but it’s not until events like these that you really feel what’s at stake,” said Epp.

Throughout the night and into the early morning, the facilities team managed the heating and cooling of USask buildings as well as campus affiliates like Agri-Food Canada and the National Research Council. Animal research facilities were monitored closely, more than 40 emergency generators were continuously checked and refueled, and a 16,000-pound backup generator was moved to an area that needed additional power.

“The number of tasks that had to be accomplished was huge,” said Epp, “but for me the most impressive thing was seeing the level of teamwork within the crew. Not only were they anticipating the needs of the systems and buildings, they were anticipating each other’s needs. Fatigue is a serious concern in situations like these. They worked together to ensure everyone was managing throughout the night and into the morning as we powered back up.”

Facilities staff and SaskPower were in constant contact throughout the night, ensuring that restoring power to campus was done in a safe and co-ordinated manner.

“We had to disconnect completely from the grid,” said Epp. “Our generators can push electricity back down the line, so the risk to injure someone is huge. This is why we have to disconnect, and that’s part of the reason powering back up takes so long.”

When power was restored to campus it didn’t mean everything was up and running right away.

“We worked with senior leadership to choose the time of closure very deliberately,” said Epp. “Restoring power is a long process. The lights came back on quickly, but it’s not as simple as that. We might look fully operational, but we have to address a number of electrical load issues and redirect power to critical areas. The closure is for everyone’s safety, including that of our team.”

Campus officially re-opened at noon and classes and regular operations resumed without any issues.

“This isn’t the kind of event you ever expect to happen,” said Epp, “but it really reinforces the importance of the planned shutdowns and maintenance facilities performs on a regular basis to ensure that our systems are functioning optimally so that our programs move forward uninterrupted.”

Special thanks to Wayne Callbeck, Doug Dunbar, Graham Erker, Dwight Grayston, Bob Larsen, Troy Linsley, Darren Opheim, Gord Poole, Lyndon Rachinsky, Bryan Read, and Stew Walker – the facilities team which ensured that campus was up and running as quickly as possible.