Sleeping in earmuffs: As students deal with inconsistent dorm temperatures, College looks to update heating systems

Many of the older buildings on campus have steam heating systems, which are prone to overheating.

by Angus Yip | 2/3/22 5:05am

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Fahey Hall is one of a handful of dorms on campus that utilize geothermal water wells to power a radiant floor heating system. 

by Hannah Li / The Dartmouth

As students trudge through winter term on campus, some are finding themselves too cold or too hot in their rooms due to inconsistent heating and outdated climate control systems.

Ethan Koehler ’25 said that when he first moved into his room in North Fayerweather Hall, a radiator unit that was improperly installed into the wall caused the radiator knob to stay stuck at the highest heat setting, resulting in constant overheating.

Koehler added that while he eventually figured out that he could turn the knob with a wrench, the heating in his room has remained “total chaos” throughout the winter term.

“One second the heat’s working and one second it’s not … it’s just impossible to control,” he said.

Associate vice president for facilities operations and management Frank Roberts said that the majority of heating-related complaints come from residents in dorms with steam heating systems — including North Fayerweather.

According to the Office of Residential Operations’ website, the College’s residential dorms are heated by three different systems: steam heating, radiant floor heating and hot water heating. Steam heating systems warm the Choates cluster, the River cluster, the Fayerweathers, Massachusetts Row, the North Park senior apartments and Butterfield, Gile, Lord, Richardson, Ripley, Russell Sage, Smith, Shabazz, Streeter, Topliff, Wheeler and Woodward Halls. 

Roberts said that the steam heating systems are outdated compared to the radiant floor heating systems — which circulate hot water through the buildings via tubing in concrete floors — that are unique to Fahey Hall, McLane Hall and the McLaughlin cluster. 

Fahey and McLane, specifically, are heated by two 1,452 foot deep geothermal water wells on the north sides of the buildings. According to the Residential Operations’ website, a series of heat pumps extract heat from the well water and cycle the water through the building. 

The rest of the residence halls — the East Wheelock cluster, Hitchcock Hall, the Lodge, New Hampshire Hall and all of the senior apartments except for North Park — use hot water heating systems, according to the Residential Operations website. 

Roberts explained that in a steam heating system, steam is provided to the building through centrally operated valves, traveling up pipes to each room where it enters the room’s radiator. However, he noted, the pipes are poorly insulated and give off heat, which may cause overheating.

“We have to make educated judgments about how often to operate the valves, because if we were to leave them on all the time, the pipes and the walls would just heat up and continually overheat the building,” he said.

Roberts noted that while residents can control how much steam enters each room’s radiator, if the central valves are closed, no steam will travel through the building, so the room will not heat up.

Hitchcock resident Lucy Ruji Shao ’23 said that while she is satisfied with the heat in her room, her roommate often uses her own heater in her room. Hitchcock utilizes a hot water system, and each room has a thermostat allowing the resident to set the room temperature between 64 to 69 degrees.

“Hitchcock is nice because we can monitor and control the temperature in our room, but most people just have to deal with whatever the central heating is set to,” she said.

Roberts said that apart from problems with radiator units, another source of student complaints are from windows being improperly shut.

Izzy Morales ’25, who lives in Judge, said that until this month, there was a malfunction with their room’s window that allowed cold air to blow into the room and made it “continuously freezing.”

“My attempt to try to make this better for myself was quite literally sleeping in my jacket, gloves, hat, scarf and earmuffs on top of my blankets,” Morales said. “I also tried creating some sort of DIY insulation out of old clothes for the window, but unfortunately this did not do anything to help.”

Morales noted that when they contacted Residential Operations about this issue, the office sent someone to fix their window the same day. They added that this experience was not unique to them — as their floormate also wears a jacket and hat to sleep due to inconsistent heating — and they believe the College’s heating systems should be better maintained, especially given the College’s growing endowment.

Last March, the College announced the creation of an infrastructure fund drawn from the endowment to support infrastructure renewal projects, including renovating residence halls. The College currently intends to renovate “approximately 60% of existing undergraduate residence halls over the coming decade.”

Roberts said that the College hopes to eventually replace all existing steam heating systems in residence halls with hot water systems, which will help to mitigate the amount of heat wasted in buildings.

He noted that while Fahey, McLane and the McLaughlin cluster have radiant floor heating systems installed, it may not be possible to install such systems when renovating an existing building due to the technical difficulties involved.

In previous summers, students have also expressed discontent over the lack of air conditioning in some residence halls.

Roberts said that the College plans to install air conditioning in most residence halls in upcoming renovations, such as in Massachusetts Row, the Fayerweathers, Streeter and Gile. However, he mentioned “exceptions” as “each building is different and it may not be appropriate [to add air conditioning] with every building.” 

“If we know a building is not going to be occupied in the summer, it probably doesn’t make sense,” Roberts said. 

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