Getting ready for winter

Many people are thinking about the beautiful foliage during fall, and St, Ambrose University is known for having that too. But when the trees shed their leaves and the weathers starts to get colder, it is the Physical Plant that deals with the things many people might not even think about.

When the summer ends and autumn begins and the temperatures start to drop, the landscape starts to get ready for the winter cold. The tree leaves change colors, bringing in lovely yellow, dull red, purple and brown hues, which are all part of the autumn foliage lively color display. Anyone living in the Mid-Western United States has seen this happen in some form or another. Native Iowans will oftentimes speak proudly of this beautiful aspect of the local environment.

St. Ambrose University‘s Physical Plant director Jim Hannon talks about the school’s landscape with the same kind of pride. He points to the lovely swamp white oaks, red oaks and bur oaks all over the campus grounds—most of the oaks on campus are bur oak, which is from the white oak family. The surrounding neighborhood has many red and white oak trees, but the oldest bur oaks in the area can be found by Rohlman Hall or the Alumni House, which has the largest and oldest oaks in the whole area. Hannon notes that on the south side of Ambrose Hall, in a place oftentimes known as “under the oaks,” but officially named Moeller Grove, there are red oaks, swamp white oaks, maples, crabs, and redbuds. There are 54 bur oaks at this place alone. It’s safe to say the oak tree epitomizes St. Ambrose University’s visual appeal.

Hannon notes that when the school plants new oak trees, they tend to choose the swamp white or bur oak.

“They [swamp white oak] resemble the bur oak and are more resilient to the oak wilt disease,” Hannon said. Oak wilt is a fungal disease that is known to kill oak trees.

Moeller Grove can becomes a bucolic retreat for anyone who goes there. This kind colorful collection of trees doesn’t come without a cost, though. When the leaves fall, they must be gathered up, and that is one of the jobs that Physical Plant workers do.

“We have inside and outside changes,” Hannon said of their role in fall. “Outside we have to get the leaves up, because if they lay on the yard it will kill the grass.”

Hannon is talking about an acerbic substance [tannic acid] that reside in oak tree leaves, which is harmless to the grass in low numbers, but since St. Ambrose University has many oak trees, it becomes a problem that needs handling.

“We get in to the leave raking mode,” Hannon said. “Of course we are still cutting grass as well, and trimming and weeding and that kind of thing.”

The Physical Plant has to make sure all the gutters and window wells are cleared of leaves too. They do this mostly in spring, but when it can be done in fall they do it.

The cold weather may bring in the falls aesthetic brilliance, but it also means bitter cold is coming. We all know it, and most of us dread it like a cold reception. Physical Plant worker responsibilities include making sure the school is ready for this winter cold and what it oftentimes necessitates. When we hide from the screaming cold wind by sitting in much warmer classrooms, it’s Physical Plant that readied these shelters.

“Inside, a lot of our buildings [at the university] are older,” Hannon said. “They have two pipe heating systems that have to be readied for the heating season.

Physical Plant starts warming up the pipes well ahead of the cold so they work properly. Additionally, there are one pipe systems, which are even older and run on steam. Without this slow introduction of heat, the systems won’t work correctly. But there is a catch.

“Where we [the university] really suffer is if we do that and it [the weather] warms up,” Hannon said. “Because you can’t just change over and turn on the air conditioning right away. It’s not like home where you can flip from one to the other. If we do that in our pipes, it creates what is called thermal shock, and they can crack and we have all kinds of trouble.”

Heating and cooling systems are not cheap, and this is especially the case when it comes to St. Ambrose University’s systems.

And in fall the Physical Plant gears up for the winter snow removal. They get the salt and store it. Plus they can use the grass cutting machinery for snow removal. They just change the blades to sweepers, which are then used to clear the sidewalks. Sometimes it is prudent to get help from outside contractors in case the snow starts to get heavier. The school sometimes needs the extra help, so it’s useful to have this option. Although Physical Plant will take care of all the sidewalks and most of the parking lots, the contractors do some of the parking lots.

Those of us from the Mid-Western states, or those who come here for some reason or another, see this cycle all the time. As soon as the summer temperatures start to dissipate, the colors come out, the leaves start to fall to the ground and then the snow comes in and the scarfs and gloves are out. Homeowners have to make sure their homes are prepared for this shift, but somehow when it comes to the school many people don’t think about the same things needing to be done. Maybe that’s because the Physical Plant is on the job.


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