Carbon monoxide leak causes a stir in Bethel dorm

January 17, 2013 | 11 a.m.

After smelling sulfur, the residents of Heritage 404 and Bethel security officers took no chances

News | Celeste Harlow for The Clarion

Carbon monoxide leak causes a stir in Bethel dorm

Photo for The Clarion by Erin Gallagher.

After a long day of classes, students expect to find a sense of peace and homecoming when they return to their dorm rooms. On Nov. 11, senior Heritage resident Christine Carroll and her roommates found no such comfort as they came home to the smell of sulfur, a sign of a natural gas leak.

Carroll called Security and Safety immediately for fear of carbon monoxide (CO). Chuck Broz, Bethel’s lead heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) technician, was contacted, and he shut down the rooftop heating unit producing the CO. The following day, Bethel HVAC personnel examined the problem unit and made repairs. They believed the unit was working properly. Four days later, the smell returned and security was again contacted.

An officer responded immediately and arrived to room 404 with a CO detector in hand. Carroll said, “He came into my room and [the CO detector] just started going crazy.” According to Carroll, she was then told to leave her room until she was informed it was safe to return. This was not in Bethel’s official report.

Doug Gabrielsen, Bethel’s manager of energy and technical services stated “the CO was not in the building at any point in time, it was in the stack [of the unit]. The smell came in from that, but not the CO itself.”

That night, security contacted the Lake Johanna Fire Department who responded to the call with the Ramsey County sheriff and an Xcel Energy representative. Upon examination by the officials, no CO was found in Heritage. The pipe outside of the problem unit was found to have elevated CO levels. Bethel staff decided to once again shut down the unit. HVAC staff monitored the unit carefully and completed additional repairs before it was turned on again on Nov. 30.

The next day, Carroll noticed the smell a third time and contacted Broz directly. The unit once again had elevated levels of CO. Though the levels in and around the unit were within state standards of operation, Broz decided to shut down the unit yet again and complete further testing. State regulation allows for 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO in the flue of a unit, but Bethel standards are more strict. “When we hit 101 [ppm] we take our equipment offline,” Broz said. “We know something doesn’t seem quite right with the piece of equipment, so we start testing it.”

The unit ran during the following days under close surveillance and was shut off at night. After the unit ran with no problems for ten days, it was left on overnight. It continues to function properly.

Bethel’s HVAC team has used this incident as an opportunity to consider revisions to their preventative maintenance procedures, which will include earlier replacement of functioning parts that may become problematic.

The residents of Heritage 404 want this circumstance to become an opportunity. “What my roommates and I really want to convey is that this could happen to anybody, anywhere in the most unexpected places,” Carroll said. “It can happen in your house, it can happen in your dorm, it can happen in a hotel room.” Carroll and her roommates hope that their experience will encourage fellow students to educate themselves about CO poisoning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in low concentrations, CO can cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion and mood swings. Carroll said she and her suite-mates each experienced similar symptoms. The investigating officials encouraged them to seek out medical attention and be tested for CO poisoning. While none of the women were medically tested, they remain convinced that what they were experiencing was more than typical end of the semester exhaustion. “I was sleeping so many hours,” Carroll said. “I knew something was weird.”

Carroll urges her peers to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the presence of CO. If you smell sulfur, it may be chemicals added to odorless natural gas. If this smell is accompanied with the symptoms previously listed, leave immediately and contact local authorities. Though the symptoms are not life threatening at low levels of CO, higher levels may lead to unconsciousness or death.

Bethel officials do not foresee additional carbon monoxide issues on campus. Molly Holmes, director of operations, confirmed that “student safety is our number one priority.” Along with 24/7 Security and Safety presence, a member of the facilities management team is always on-call in case of emergencies in Bethel buildings.

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