To keep UVA warm for a week during a typical mid-winter cold spell, UVA facility workers first pile up more than 1.5 million pounds of coal, then pipe in some 25 million cubic feet of natural gas.

Next, they take water and start pumping it into five boilers. Big ones: Each is roughly five stories tall.

Then they load the coal onto a rattling conveyor belt that feeds the coal into three of the boilers. They run natural gas into the other two from an underground pipeline.

Bert Watson, of UVA’s facilities management department, begins his descent into the steam tunnels to bleed valves at various locations under Grounds.

Step four, they get the boilers hot. Really hot. Like 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit hot.

That heat will make steam—at a rate of about 275,000 pounds an hour—and hot water.

With a button pushed here and a lever moved there, that water and steam are then pushed through a complex system of pipes housed in a seldom-seen network of tunnels lurking under Grounds.

The tunnels run as deep as 24 feet, bringing heat to buildings from Gooch Hall to Campbell Hall and even the Lawn—as well as the occasional student who stops atop a random grate between their English lit and chemistry class.

The University’s reliance on the more than 6 miles of underground tunnels to spread heat means never-ending work for a platoon of some 20 men and women from UVA’s facilities management department. They spend every day of the year fixing valves, draining traps and conducting routine inspections on pipes.

“We don’t get to take snow days,” says Mark Roach, UVA’s associate director for utilities systems. “One trap fails and it can quickly turn into a significant energy loss.”

Once a year in the late spring, Roach’s crew, along with nearly 50 contractors and workers in the University’s heating plant, shut down the entire system so that they can perform large-scale maintenance and repairs in the tunnels, such as replacing pipe sections and removing asbestos insulation.

Bert Watson shimmies between pipes to check steam valves.
At the start of the annual maintenance work, each worker is given a key to a lock that is attached to this lockbox. When they return from the tunnels, they remove their lock. Once all the locks have been opened, a key inside that box opens a separate lock box at the boiler plant is removed and the system can be started up again. This practice was created to reduce the chance of injury when the plant first comes back on line.

It takes just 90 minutes for the pipes and boilers to cool enough so that workers can begin. Then it’s a precisely choreographed 24-hour marathon—broken into 12- and 16-hour shifts—that is five months in the planning.

“If we’re going to replace a pipe, we can’t just cut a piece out and find something we hope fits and if it doesn’t try something else,” Roach says. “We don’t have the time. So we have to have it designed and manufactured beforehand so we can pop it in and weld it.”

Descending into the tunnels was once considered a rite of passage for some students. The earliest documented case of students sneaking down is some time in the 1950s, when male students were caught using the tunnels to sneak into the School of Nursing dormitory, says Peter Kowalzik, the University’s plant engineer.

But today, an increasing number of security measures the University has put into place—including motion detectors and video cameras—keeps the tunnels well-fortified from all but the most determined.

“A few years ago we found someone had sawed through the bars of an entry door to the tunnels,” Roach says. “It must have taken them forever. For what? All you are going to get when you get down there is a chance to hit your head on a beam or burn a hand. Then there’s the asbestos.”

The first steam tunnels were dug under UVA around the early 1900s, says Garth Anderson (Arch ’14), the facilities management department’s de facto historian. A boiler facility was constructed behind Old Cabell Hall to heat nearby buildings, and heating tunnels were run under the east and west Lawn rooms to the Rotunda.

Graffiti like this image–called “Jesus” by facilties management workers–have appeared in the tunnels over the years. Photos of this artwork hang above the desks of some of the people who work in the tunnels.

Sometime around 1922, the University built a powerhouse on the current site of the heating plant, next to the train tracks that cross Jefferson Park Avenue. It was the most convenient spot to grab coal coming by on rail cars.

The plant was initially meant only to heat the growing hospital complex, which at that time sat only on the western side of JPA. But by the end of the decade, steam tunnels were running from the plant to Clark and Monroe halls and what is now Brown College.

As the University grew during the 1950s, the tunnel system was expanded as well,  reaching out as far as the McCormick Road dorms and Observatory Hill. In the 1970s, the last of the tunnels were dug under Carr’s Hill to heat the Architecture School.

At the boiler plant, workers use a crane to install a 12-inch steam trap. Welding it in will take 12 hours.

“Those tunnels were probably the most difficult to construct,” says Anderson. “They hit a type of rock layer that’s extremely hard. They couldn’t use explosives because the Academical Village sits on the same layer and it would’ve transmitted shock waves. So they drilled into it, filled it with water and placed a refrigerated line in. When the water froze, it expanded, and broke the rock.”

The University’s reliance on coal to push water and steam through the tunnels and heat its buildings is an ongoing source of debate. Clean energy advocates say the hazardous chemicals emitted by coal burning, including nitrous oxides, mercury and particulates—not to mention the tons of carbon emitted every day—make it a bad choice for the University.

University officials agree that there are many downsides to coal, but they say it’s the best, most practical choice. While using only natural gas would significantly cut the University’s carbon footprint, the closest pipe the University could connect to that would meet its needs is 13 miles away. Building a connecting pipe alone could cost as much as $52 million, and that figure does not include annual maintenance and easement costs, says Kent Knicely, the University’s heating plants manager.

“It would be a major investment to get away from coal,” he says.

Wind and solar are not realistic choices either, they say. The area does not produce enough wind for turbines, and it would take 10 acres of solar panels to produce just one megawatt of energy. The University’s demands peak as high as 52 megawatts.

So officials have settled on making the coal they do use as clean as possible. A $73 million renovation that ended in 2011 brought three cleaner-burning boilers and state-of-the-art emissions-control equipment. They’ve also turned their focus to limiting carbon from the University’s top contributor: electricity.

“People are surprised to hear that electricity is actually our top cause of carbon, not coal,” Knicely says. “There are ways we can work to limit carbon from that by making buildings more efficient.”

Andrea Ruedy Trimble, the director of UVA’s Office for Sustainability, says her office is examining everything from figuring out ways to make lab buildings more energy efficient—they suck up the most electricity on Grounds—to changing human behavior. 

Edward Brobbey makes his way down a tunnel under the heating plant to make sure the pipes are functioning properly at the end of the heating system’s annual maintenance shutdown.

“We are working at getting everyone to think about sustainability and acting on it,” Trimble says. “How people are running their own departments, what processes are being used, are there different ways the faculty can teach. Essentially, we’re building sustainability literacy.”

Regardless of how the University heats itself in the future, Roach says the tunnels will remain well into their second century as they increasingly provide more services, such as communication lines.

“Never say never,” he says. “But I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”

To see more photos from UVA’s tunnels, please view the gallery “More of What Lies Beneath.”