Tech Support

Electrical malfunction causes campus scare

A weekly test of an automated motor-generator system at Tennessee Tech University malfunctioned on January 3rd, causing overheating and heavy smoke that nearly caught fire. Campus buildings were evacuated as multiple fire alarms were triggered. The incident also led to further inspection of equipment that yielded deficiencies, prompting a call for replacement of more machinery.

The malfunction caused electric generator motors in three Tech campus buildings—one of them a residence hall—to overheat, emit smoke and nearly catch fire, Tracey Hackett of the Herald Citizen (Cookeville, Tenn.) reported. Response timing proved crucial, with firefighters managing to stifle the smoke before it became a blaze by blasting the mechanical equipment with fire extinguishers.

Close calls like this one can serve as reminders that even smaller equipment is dangerous and requires maintenance. The problematical motors were all under 5 hp; small voltage apparatus used for chilled water, hot water, and fans, according to university officials. Yet, there were three or four total found to be the cause of the billowing smoke that forced evacuations of students. Furthermore, the punctuality of the fire department not only averted danger, it allowed campus officials to identify “six or seven more motors” that need to be replaced on campus, a cumulative total of 9-10 defective motors.

Along with the motors, the generators and switchgear in the system are also being replaced. “We’re waiting on the equipment manufacturer to evaluate the switch gears at the generators and fix the transfer switch today,” Jack Butler, Tech’s associate vice president of Facilities and Business Services, told the Herald Citizen. He noted that despite its potential severity, the issue was not representative of negligence.

“We make every effort to anticipate problems, but this was just a mechanical failure that was unavoidable. We continually make every effort to make sure the motors are properly cared for and in proper working order,” Butler said.

Before ‘tech’ was a blanket word for anything new in electronics, it meant one of two things. One was a shortening of the word ‘technology’ used to abbreviate a college or university with the word in its title. The second referred to an individual—usually within one of a few industries—the repair technician. Just a thought.

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