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A day in the life of a university maintenance department

The behind-the-scenes crew that keeps a campus the size of a small city up and running.

By MARK CARDWELL | AUG 14 2019

Every morning, Martin Deblois starts his workday at Université Laval by caring for the school’s huge indoor swimming pools. “They’re our biggest physical responsibility and maintaining them is one of the most challenging jobs on campus,” says Mr. Deblois just before 8 a.m. on a late-spring morning as he walks around the two Olympic-sized pools in Laval’s athletics building, called le PEPS, looking for any damage or changes in water quality that might have occurred overnight.

The pools are always busy, as they’re used both for training athletes and recreational swimming. The pools also host local, national and even international swim meets. “Keeping the water clean is a challenge because it never has much time to rest,” says Mr. Deblois, one of a half-dozen of Laval’s 12 plumbers who are specially trained in swimming pool filtration and chemical treatment. “By law, we have to respect regulations regarding the clarity of the water, and pH and chlorine levels. If the water gets cloudy or contaminated, or if the chemical levels go out of whack, the lifeguards close the pools and call us.”

After his visual inspection, Mr. Deblois walks down two flights of stairs into the service tunnels that surround the pool bottoms, opening and closing grey steel doors using a huge ring of keys jangling from his utility belt. He is greeted by a roar of noise and heat as he enters the machine rooms, where rows of enormous pumps and filters act like mechanical hearts and lungs to continuously circulate and clean the eight million litres of water in the two pools above, plus the 200,000 litres in the kids’ wading pool and splash pad that separate them.

Mr. Deblois examines the machines, checks the levels of liquid chlorine in big feeder tanks, and then tests water samples to determine the pH and chlorine levels in the pools above. Finally, around 9:30, he returns poolside and completes another weekly task: emptying ten 50-pound bags of sodium bicarbonate into one of the two pools to enhance alkalinity. “That’s pretty much it for me here today – unless there’s an emergency,” says Mr. Deblois, whose year-long mandate for morning pool maintenance ends in September, when a colleague takes over. “Time to move on to other buildings.”

Martin Deblois adds sodium bicarbonate to the PEPS pool to raise the water’s alkalinity. All photos by Francis Vachon.

So begins another typical day for the nearly 200 men and women who belong to the infrastructure and facilities management team at Université Laval. Like at Canada’s other universities, if it weren’t for the daily chores and routine maintenance they perform, along with attending to the occasional minor emergency, the campus would quickly cease to function for the thousands of students, faculty members and employees who work, study, teach and conduct research there.

Denis Beaudoin is director of Laval’s Service des immeubles. A Laval engineering graduate, he returned to his alma mater three years ago after spending 30 years in Quebec’s public health sector. At Laval, he oversees everything from the planning, design and development of new buildings, roads and other infrastructure to the renovation, upkeep and maintenance of existing ones on campus.

Founded in the Old City of Quebec in 1663, making it the oldest postsecondary institution in the country and the first francophone university in North America, Laval moved to its present-day suburban location in the city’s west end in the 1950s. “It was literally farmland with open fields and a few trees,” Mr. Beaudoin says of the property, which is roughly two square kilometres, or 200 hectares, in size.

Mr. Beaudoin credits the frugal foresight of campus planners for laying out Laval’s central infrastructure before constructing the academic buildings. “We have a planned campus, where the planners took a field and said, ‘This is how we’ll do it.’”

The first thing built on campus was a seven-kilometre-long system of underground tunnels that are used as conduits to distribute heating and electricity throughout the campus. The tunnels were built in straight lines that form a main quadrangle in the middle of the campus where the main buildings are located.

One of Laval’s first buildings was the heating plant. Located at the extreme east end of the campus and inaugurated in 1954 with Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis in attendance, the big brick structure is home to the facilities management offices and the three enormous boilers that have heated the university for more than 60 years. “They are industrial boilers like in pulp and paper plants,” says Mr. Beaudoin of the machines, which sit side by side in a cavernous space three storeys high.

Under the boilers, which burn 10 million cubic metres of natural gas a year – the equivalent of a full cargo of liquefied natural gas on the world’s largest transport ships – are more floors with massive pumps, motors and compressors to circulate water. A newer, smaller plant at the opposite end of campus produces chilled water to cool buildings, research equipment, computer server rooms, and so on. The two plants together circulate more than 100,000 litres of water per minute, enough to fill a residential swimming pool in 30 seconds.

Michel Bourret is in charge of the refrigeration at the university. “When we run at full capacity in summer, when air conditioning is most needed, we use a third of all the electricity on campus,” he says.

Mr. Bourret credits the university’s network of tunnels, which are lined with colour-coded pipes and electrical and fibreoptic cables, for making energy distribution and maintenance much easier. “Technical service guys are like groundhogs because they spend a lot of their time working underground,” says Mr. Bourret. He adds, however, that while the tunnels are clean and wide, they can get hot, especially older sections that are narrower in size and with bigger pipes. “They are around 40 degrees Celsius,” says Mr. Bourret. “Walking into them is like having a hair dryer blasting your face. We don’t need to go down south in winter.”

With 45,000 students in hundreds of programs, Laval ranks as one of Canada’s larger universities. It also holds a charter that makes it a city within a city, both figuratively and literally. “We are an autonomous legal entity, a city with a rector rather than a mayor,” says Mr. Beaudoin. “We don’t need municipal building permits. We build and manage our own systems and buildings.”

Facilities management at Laval is divided up between five departments. One of the biggest is transportation and public works, which is responsible for roadways, sidewalks, parks and services like water and electricity (though not garbage or recycling, which are done under contract, like snow removal on roads).

Gabriel Tremblay was hired as a replacement worker in December to clear snow from hundreds of roofs, sidewalks and doorways across the Laval campus. “It takes days to clear 20 centimetres of snow,” says Mr. Tremblay, who on this day is driving “Mobile 35,” a radio-dispatched pick-up truck that transports tradespeople, materials and equipment around campus. “And here in Quebec City we get a lot of snow.”

Another big department is building maintenance, which is responsible for the care and repair of all 30 buildings on the Quebec City campus, which together have 700,000 square metres of floor space. According to Mr. Beaudoin, that is roughly similar to McGill University or the University of Ottawa.

The maintenance department also helps out when needed with buildings at Forêt Montmorency, a research forest owned by the university about an hour’s drive north of campus, as well as the Villa Frederick James, a house overlooking Percé Rock in the Gaspé Peninsula that was a bequest to Laval and is used to hold summer classes.

A third department, real estate development and projects, handles the roughly 100 construction projects that Laval undertakes every year – everything from $20,000 roof repairs and window replacements to multi-million-dollar classroom and lab makeovers, as well as new builds.

Current projects include the construction of the new Institut nordique du Québec, an $83-million project now in the planning stages, and the construction of new stainless-steel cooling towers, which are currently being built to the tune of $10 million.

“We are managers of our projects from beginning to end,” says Mr. Beaudoin, “although we don’t do the actual building work, which is tendered. We manage the tendering process and ensure quality control during construction. Once the building is delivered, building maintenance takes over.”

The two remaining departments are building management, which acts like a landlord by managing and scheduling how and when spaces are used, and administration services, which deals with human resources, finances and cleaning services, which are contracted out.

Though life on campus is most active during regular office hours from Monday to Friday in the fall and winter sessions, Mr. Beaudoin says the people in his department are always on the go. “A university is not like a hospital where it has to be open 24/7,” he says. “But, if a greenhouse with plants in an experiment suddenly loses power, we need to react quickly. We always have people on call who can respond. And, when things are slow on campus, we take advantage by doing maintenance and other needed work to our infrastructure and facilities.”


Daniel Clavet installs flooring in the ULaval residence.

It’s mid-morning and Daniel Clavet is down on padded knees, installing new vinyl flooring in a small residence room. “Things get worn out,” says Mr. Clavet, a 57-year-old master carpenter who left the home-building industry a decade ago to take a job with Laval. Dressed in the dark-blue work pants and shirts that all Laval maintenance employees wear, he mostly does renovation and repair work in the campus’s four 50-year-old student residences, which together have a total of 2,200 beds.

Mr. Clavet says working on a university campus is a great job for a veteran tradesperson. “I make about $10 an hour less than I would in the construction industry, but the quality of the working conditions and the people here more than make up for it,” he says. “I’m mostly indoors now, not up on a roof or ladder in bad weather, the hours are regular and the people I work with are first rate.”

Maxime Gauthier, a stationary engine mechanic who works at the university’s main heating plant, shares that sentiment. “I might not earn as much as I would if I was working in a big industrial setting like an aluminum mill or a pulp and paper plant,” says Mr. Gauthier, “but I love what I do, and campus is a fun and stimulating place to work.”

Later in the day, with the excitement of a kid in a candy store, electricity coordinator Réal Tardif explains to a visitor some of the key components of Laval’s electrical distribution network. “We are like a mini-utility in that electricity is delivered to us, but we are in control of internal distribution,” says Mr. Tardif, a technician who worked for big industrial companies in northern Quebec before joining Laval in 1996.

Mr. Tardif leads a team of seven technicians who work to keep power flowing, as well as a half-dozen licensed electricians who repair breakers and do other maintenance-related work in campus buildings. The team also does weekly maintenance of the diesel generators that are located in every major building for use during emergency blackouts. “We’re completely independent,” says Mr. Tardif. “We can generate power for as long as we can keep their fuel tanks full.”

The job is important “because we have to keep power flowing,” says Mr. Tardif. “It’s the same when we’re planning to cut power to a building or a section of a building to do repairs or maintenance. We need to coordinate with a lot of people and plan a month or more in advance, so we don’t disrupt experiments or exams or classes or whatever.”

Mr. Tardif says working with a mix of building types – institutional, residential, laboratories – from different eras with different requirements is an added challenge. So too is dealing with regular requests for power for research projects. “We’re always fielding requests to accommodate projects,” he says. “We try to find solutions, but sometimes things aren’t doable in the proposed space.”

Frédéric Harvey checks an instrumentation panel at the PEPS pool.

Maximo is the name of the IBM software that triages emergency calls from Laval employees about any kind of maintenance mishap, rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the most urgent. “We get 400 to 500 calls every two weeks and about two dozen code 1s every day,” says Frédéric Harvey, head of plumbing services at Laval. “The problem is that a clogged toilet in one of the hundreds of bathrooms around campus may seem like an emergency to the person who uses it. But, they have to realize that sometimes we can’t get to it right away because we’re dealing with one or two real emergencies.”

A good example of a real emergency happened on a weekday morning in the winter of 2018, when a joint exploded on a water pipe on the third floor in the 1960s-era Pavillon Alexandre-Vachon, which houses the faculties of science and engineering, and the research units of some two dozen Canada Research Chair holders.

“The stairwells became waterfalls and the water flooded floors and leaked through ceilings into labs,” says Mr. Harvey. “We had to close the whole building. Fortunately, we were able to fix the problem in an hour. But it took weeks to clean up and repair all the damage. It was a real mess.”

Back outside, it’s a beautiful sunny afternoon, and small groups of students and staff bike or stroll along the many elm-lined pathways that crisscross campus, oblivious to the work happening indoors and below. “From a technical services standpoint, our campus is a huge playground,” says Mr. Beaudoin. “There’s always something going on. There’s never a dull moment around here.”

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  1. Sharon Campbell / August 14, 2019 at 13:41

    Great story! As the leader of a facilities services team in higher education, it is great to see behind the scenes workers who keep a campus working get showcased for their work and dedication. Hats off to our neighbors to the North!!

  2. Jim A Nicell / August 14, 2019 at 14:10

    I am very happy to see this article. Having worked closely over the years with the great people that keep universities humming, I think it is very important for us all to acknowledge how much we rely on them – both on a day-to-day basis and in emergencies.

    I hope we see more articles like this in the future.

  3. Shehna Javeed / August 14, 2019 at 16:09

    Unsung heroes who work hard to ensure that the air we work in physically comfortable environments, the lights work, the snow is cleared and the flowers look beautiful, and the infrastructure is maintained. It is the default of our being in the work environment, because we certainly notice it when there is a leak or it is too cold in our offices. Thank you.

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