The Science Center was evacuated last Thursday, Oct. 30 due to a contained fire in Sage Hall caused by a transformer malfunction. The building was evacuated at 2:30 p.m. after the smoke detector sounded and the power went out. Students were invited back into the building at 3:30 p.m. to collect their belongings after firefighters extinguished the fire and the transformer had been stabilized. The building was closed to students again at 5:30 p.m. to allow crews to work throughout the night and finally reopened on Friday morning for regular classes.
A transformer transfers electrical energy between circuits and is required to supply the Science Center with power. The transformer in question was located in a dedicated concrete room in the lower level of Sage. It has three internal cores; the middle core was damaged, which presumably caused part of the insulation in the transformer to catch fire. The fire was contained to the transformer’s metal casing. The replacement transformer, which was installed early Friday morning, is located outside the building near the main door of Sage Hall.
According to Trina Learned, the director of operations for Facilities Management and Planning, the department conducts routine checks on all equipment on campus, including parts of the electrical system.
“It is our standard procedure to review any event such as this malfunction and see what lessons can be learned,” Learned stated. “We will continue to have internal discussions about this and fine-tune our stewardship practices.”
Although the transformer had been visually inspected routinely, it had not been examined thoroughly recently because the power would have to be turned off in order to examine it.
“Any invasive cleaning or inspection requires that the transformer not be in service; that means that we would need to create a power outage,” Learned said. “As you can imagine, we do everything we can to keep the power on, not just to the Science Center, but campus-wide.”
Learned also emphasized that the malfunction was not a result of a lack of inspection.
“However, it is important that we do not equate what happened to the transformer to a lack of recent inspection,” Learned stated. “The transformer was aged; what happened was unusual, and did not cause building damage nor much disruption.”
Learned stated that it is not likely that the transformer malfunction could have caused a larger problem because it has its own housing and dedicated room. Still, the new transformer has been removed from the building. Learned explained that Facilities Management chose to install the new transformer outside because it allowed the crew to run the new transformer and restore power before removing the malfunctioning one from inside the building.
Crews from Wellesley and outside of Wellesley worked from 2:30 p.m., when the transformer malfunctioned, to 2:30 a.m., when the crews were able to restore power to Sage. The process was expedited by the fact that Facilities Management had a spare transformer already on campus.
“We had stored on campus a spare transformer, one that matched the capacity and requirements of the one that malfunctioned in Sage,” Learned said. “So, we had the needed equipment on campus. But, we needed help.”
Help from Wellesley Municipal Light and Power arrived before the fire department had left. Facilities also worked with local partners to hire a crane operator to move the transformer and an excavator to position the concrete pad for the replacement transformer.
The crews also worked to restore power to the Observatory, which also lost power as a result of the transformer malfunction.
According to Learned, Facilities Management is tracking the costs but has yet to calculate the total costs incurred as a result of the malfunction.
In an announcement from Pete Zuraw, assistant vice president of Facilities Management, on Friday Oct. 31 stating that classes and labs would continue as usual in the Science Center, Zuraw stated that anyone using the Science Center should stay away from the first floor of Sage Hall, which still smelled of smoke. Zuraw also thanked the students, faculty and staff for their patience and the crews who worked until early Friday morning.
“I also want to thank the facilities staff who, thanks to their dedicated work through the night, ensured that the Science Center could re-open today,” Zuraw stated.
Photos by Soojin Jeong ’17, Photography Editor