ics. Steam tunnels turn up in hipster novels and campy ’80s television shows.
(Remember the Linda Hamilton vehicle
Beauty and the Beast Remember where
the Beast lived?) Urban myths swirl
around them, usually involving students
getting lost forever in their depths during
role-playing games such as Dungeons and
All of which explains DuBose’s reluctance to publicize the tunnels. To a certain segment of the population, they are
sexy, and he is the one who has to deal
with the resulting safety and security
issues. And every minute he spends worrying about how to prevent underground
initiation rites is one spent away from his
real job, which is keeping the University
To that end, steam tunnels simplify his
life. Rather than having to maintain hundreds of heating and cooling units scattered across campus, DuBose can focus on
keeping one source running — the aforementioned cogeneration plant — and
maintaining a few miles of walk-in tunnel
and dozens more of buried pipe. The tunnels have the added benefit of keeping the
campus uncluttered and quiet above
ground — no fans or motors coughing to
life, no wires or cables threading through
the branches of oak trees. At UNC, everything that can be buried is buried: steam
and chilled water, electricity, water and
sewer, storm water, telecommunications.
“It’s amazing the amount of real estate
we take up underground,” DuBose says.
“We’re running out of room.”
The downside is that fixing buried
pipes and tunnels isn’t always easy or
cheap, and parts of the network are showing their age. Construction on the main
line across campus, a mile-long stretch,
started in 1939. DuBose and Lowery say
that an even older piece, dating back to at
least the 1920s, also runs under North
Campus, starting at the site of what was
once an on-campus power plant not far
from Polk Place.
Over the decades, rusting rebar and
deteriorating concrete have weakened the
tunnels in spots, according to mechanical
engineer Lowery. The decay led the University, about four years ago, to launch a
$40 million effort to replace almost a half
mile of the old tunnel by building a new
one alongside it. “We get a lot of flack for
that,” Lowery says of the repair work.
“People want to know why we’re always
While the $40 million goes to ground
on North Campus, UNC is pouring
another $60 million into a brand-new
mile of walk-in tunnel to deliver steam,
chilled water and other utilities to the rising megalopolis down by the hospital.
Picking a clear path through all the
existing underground utilities was one of
the biggest construction challenges,
according to Mike Goodwin, field superintendent for Clancy & Theys, one of the
contractors. The company dug foot by
careful foot, often leading with air excavation to find its way through obstacles.
“I’d hate to be the next guy who has to
go through there,” Goodwin said.
The finished product has an entirely
different ambience than its ancestor. It is
twice as wide and well-lit, with plenty of
headroom. While it is a far cry from cool
on a summer day, the massive pipes for
chilled water and steam are well-insulated, and big fans keep the temperature
far below the 150 degrees that the 1939
tunnel can reach. The Omega loops of
yore are gone, replaced by machine-made
and U-shaped joints that allow the pipes
to expand and contract as needed.
Whether it is still sexy or not is in the
eye of the beholder: While the old tunnel
feels hellish and claustrophobic, the new
one has an eerie emptiness to it — like
the interior of a sci-fi spaceship in which
all the passengers have been cryogenically
No doubt, someone out there will find
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