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UNM becomes virtual ghost town

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ordinarily, it’s a buzzing, humming hive of activity with thousands of people – students, professors, administrators, staff, visitors – going about their daily business, everyone with a job to do.

Then, abruptly, much of the University of New Mexico shuts down, almost completely, hibernating for the annual winter break.

This year, it began on Dec. 21, and, just like that, the bustling campus went silent.

University of New Mexico police officer Larry Bitsoih patrols the residence halls on the main campus on Saturday. Some students remain in dormitories during the winter break. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico police officer Larry Bitsoih patrols the residence halls on the main campus on Saturday. Some students remain in dormitories during the winter break. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

But even though classes won’t start until Jan. 21, it’s not a ghost town. Behind the scenes, some people remain at work. Perhaps most obvious are the campus police, who are always on call for emergencies. Nor is there a winter break for the staff at the busy UNM Hospital.

Still, parking lots are virtually deserted. A young man, perhaps a student, lounges on a wooden bench, reading a book in the quiet afternoon sunshine. Another young man skateboards, all alone, at the deserted plaza outside Zimmerman Library. And, yes, even the historic library is closed.

Then, there are the UNM Physical Plant Department workers.

Robert Notary, associate director of the Physical Plant Department Engineering & Energy Services, says his people may be on break, but their eyes remain on campus. A web-based program allows them to monitor, remotely, every building, watching to make sure temperatures neither climb too high nor fall too low. They can even do this from home on their laptops.

Two of his crew members, Tom Tafoya, the energy services manager, and Joe Roybal,the team’s lead energy services technician, explain the intricate, color-coded computer system that allows them to monitor and control temperatures in all buildings and offices on the sprawling campus, including the Pit and the office of the president. So during an off-period, like winter break, temperatures in most indoor areas are held to a minimum – but warm enough to make sure nothing freezes.

A lone bicycle is parked outside the art building on the University of New Mexico campus on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A lone bicycle is parked outside the art building on the University of New Mexico campus on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

With sensors in the buildings, they can also control many electronic functions, such as lighting, air circulation and certain computers.

“If we don’t need to run some of those things at full speed, why do it?” Roybal asks. “It’d be a waste of energy.”

Before winter break began, the department sent out a notice to the campus, reminding everyone to turn off and unplug computers, monitors, lights, surge protectors, calculators, printers, copiers, lamps, heaters and personal appliances.

Dianne Anderson, director of communication for the university, said over the past five or six years, UNM has reduced its energy consumption by 20 percent, “even though electricity rates have gone up 50 percent.” The savings are the result of UNM operating its own power plant, the importation of a new gas turbine and all-important conservation efforts.

The university’s heating bill is more than $7 million per year.

Meanwhile, some students remain on campus in some dormitories during the winter break. The police still patrol the university and ambulances race into and out of the hospital.

But it’s ridiculously easy to find parking just now, and on an almost spring-like afternoon, the fountains in the duck pond continue to spray water into the air while a few children and adults toss bread crumbs to the birds.

Joe Roybal, left, and Tom Tafoya monitor environmental controls for 80 buildings on the University of New Mexico campus during winter break. Technicians can remotely control temperatures and other electronic functions throughout the sprawling campus, from the Pit to the office of the president. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Joe Roybal, left, and Tom Tafoya monitor environmental controls for 80 buildings on the University of New Mexico campus during winter break. Technicians can remotely control temperatures and other electronic functions throughout the sprawling campus, from the Pit to the office of the president. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

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