Colleges helping students find an outlet

Posted Online: Dec. 06, 2003, 11:00 pm
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By Tory Brecht, staff writer

When Augustana College's Carlsson Hall was built in the 1928, an electric outlet or two was more than enough for young scholars.

They might have had a couple of lamps and a fan. A lucky few, perhaps, had radios.

These days, two electric outlets just don't cut it. Today's students arrive on campus loaded like looters from an electronics store.

Augustana, like other colleges and universities nationwide, has invested thousands of dollars to upgrade dormitories' electrical systems to accommodate students' technology.

Jason Pencek and Jason Petit's claustrophobic two-man room in Carlsson is a veritable electronics boutique. The contents: two televisions, a microwave, a refrigerator, multiple desk lamps, two computers, a printer, two clock radios, PlayStation 2 and X-Box game consoles, two clock radios, a fan, a lava lamp, two cordless phones, a strobe light and a DustBuster.

Power strips with surge protectors -- each sprouting multiple cords -- jut from the wall.

``Space is an issue,'' said Mr. Pencek. ``We have trouble entertaining people.''

The juice needed to run the electronic cornucopia can strain a college's power plant or require expensive wire and circuit upgrades.

Augustana upgraded Carlsson Hall in 2002, essentially doubling the electrical capacity in the building and adding circuits and outlets in every room, said Kirby Winn, a college spokesman.

``It was necessary because circuit breakers were getting tripped quite often when there was too heavy an electric load and people's electronic equipment would stop working,'' he said. ``We had to ask students to curtail some of their electronics use prior to the upgrade.''

Eric Anderson, a 1999 graduate and current residence-hall director, said the pre-upgrade days caused lots of hassles.

``They put new pop machines in, and every time they kicked on, the power would go out,'' he recalled. ``You could pretty much rely on the fact, if you were typing a very important paper on the computer, your electricity would flash off at least once.''

The school also added high-speed Internet and cable capability to its largest on-campus residential complex, the Erickson-Westerlin quadrangle, Mr. Winn said. Technology fee increases passed on to students paid for the cable and Internet project, he said.

``Schools really have to strike a balance,'' he said. ``You must be careful on how to spend resources, yet you have to offer some of these amenities for recruiting and to make students comfortable. It's a balancing act.''

The ability to plug in a dozen electronic appliances may not make or break a student's college choice, but administrators cringe at the thought of circuits going out and computers going dead when potential students are on overnight recruiting visits.

Paul Saffo, of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, said most colleges have no choice but to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade electrical systems. Often, upgrade costs are passed to parents and students through higher fees.

In the past five years, the annual energy use in the University of Iowa's residence halls skyrocketed more than $200,000, said UI's utilities financial analyst, Mike Donnelly. The 2 million kilowatt-hour electricity jump is directly attributable to the burgeoning number of electronic devices in the dorms, he said.

Like Augustana, Iowa continually upgrades electric capacity in its student housing, said residence-services staffer Maggie Van Oel. The university started with the oldest dorms and tries to do some work each year, she said.

Iowa students can use as much electricity as they want, said Ms. Van Oel, but some appliances are forbidden. However, ``They don't always follow the rules,'' she said.

``They can't have kitchen grills, toaster ovens, space heaters or halogen lamps. And they can only have a 4-cubic-foot refrigerator. Some have tried to plug things into the air-conditioning-only outlets, which can blow the circuits. They usually don't do that after the first week, though.''

Mr. Petit said he's thankful Augustana upgraded the power load in Carlsson Hall. He's noticed no power failures or glitches, despite the megawattage he and his roommate use.

``I do have one power strip plugged into another power strip to get more outlets,'' he said. ``I don't think it's against the rules. I hope it doesn't violate the fire code.''

Staff writer Tory Brecht can be reached at (309) 786-6441, ext. 271, or by e-mail at


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