Heat, Cold or Flooding, Lower Goes with the Flow

April 4, 2011

When Richard "Rick" Lower, plumbing supervisor at UA Facilities Management, was honored with a University of Arizona Staff Award for Excellence a few years back, he was introduced as a man for whom "no disaster looms too big":

When the Art Museum’s steam humidifier system malfunctioned, Rick was there. When frigid temperatures caused water coils and pipes to freeze and rupture in several buildings, Rick was there. When McKale flooded due to heavy monsoons, Rick was there.

And last February, when the temperature in Tucson suddenly dropped like a rock, Rick was there. In fact, he was ahead of the game.

On the night of Wed., Feb. 2, Tucson was hit by a cold front of arctic air. At 8 a.m. on Thursday morning — with the temperature still only 19 degrees (breaking the record of 21-degrees that had stood since 1910) — many Tucsonans were waking up to flooded homes, no water on tap and wrecked irrigation systems due to pipes that had cracked and burst overnight.

Fortunately for the University, the day before, when Lower heard what was coming, he made the rounds at local plumbing shops and practically cleared them out of backflow preventer and other supplies. So by noon the next day, with Tucson temperatures still below freezing, Rick and his team at UA Facilities Management were in full hero mode.

Keep in mind that overseeing all of the water and plumbing needs for a campus of close to 200 buildings spread across 387 acres — think irrigation, heating, cooling and labs, to say nothing of the roughly 55,000 students, faculty and staff using drinking fountains, toilets and sinks — is never a day at the beach.

"We normally get about 300 to 350 services requests a month," Lower said. "When that cold front hit, we had 200 service requests in two days." Rick and his team worked 16-hour shifts to minimize impact on the University's teaching, research and medicine — taking calls, isolating damage and falling back to tackle higher priorities in ongoing triage.

Most of the damage was on the UA's more exposed properties. Fortunately, for much of the campus, pipes and equipment are insulated within the UA's labyrinthine system of underground maintenance tunnels. Even so, by end of month, Rick and his team had logged 536 service requests.

While that kind of scrimmage might send some players looking for an easier game, not so for Lower, who's worked at the University for 23 years, first as a welder and plumber and now, for more than six years, as plumbing supervisor.

Before joining the UA, Lower had worked various construction jobs — mines, medical facilities, plumbing stations for the Central Arizona Project — but for a young guy with a family, the University offered a break from constant travel and a chance for his children to grow up without moving from school to school.

All these years and emergencies later, Lower still loves his job. "It's very challenging, but I'm happy with what I have," he says, listing first and foremost his "tremendous staff" along with great benefits and a great education for his children. And then there's the campus itself. The job may not be a day at the beach, but for Lower, the beauty of the UA doesn't go unnoticed: "Basically, every day when you go to work," he says, "it's like walking around in a park."