KU officials worry about safety of old buildings’ electrical wiring

Kansas University senior Marcela Telles, Brazil, left, socializes with junior Kate Mallula, Roeland Park, on Monday in the living room of Watkins scholarship hall. Watkins is one of several buildings on the KU campus that are scheduled to receive electrical wiring updates.

Safety at Home

Kansas University’s electrical life safety supervisor, Doug Carter, offered these tips to avoid electrical fires:

  • Don’t string cords underneath a rug, mattress or anything else, as it creates friction and produces extra heat.
  • Check to be sure cords aren’t frayed or worn.
  • If you must use an extension cord, use one with 14 gauge wire or greater.
  • Don’t plug extension cords or power strips into other extension cords or power strips.
  • If an outlet feels loose, it should be replaced.
  • Outlets along kitchen counters and in bathrooms require a ground-fault circuit interrupter.

Students plugging appliances into old electrical wiring makes eight dormitories and scholarship halls at Kansas University potential fire hazards.

“Years ago, people didn’t have microwaves, hair dryers, curling irons and a lot of the things they have now,” said Vincent Avila, associate housing director. “These circuits aren’t meant to hold the big load of these appliances.”

For several years, the university has been updating wiring in older buildings.

And anytime a building is renovated – such as residence halls on Daisy Hill – its electrical system is replaced.

“It’s mainly replacing old, outdated wiring they installed many years ago when the buildings were built and bringing them up to current electrical codes,” Avila said.

This summer, the department rewired the 50-student Sellards scholarship hall, at a cost of nearly $20,000. Each summer, another hall gets new wiring.

“Usually, the funds are available for something like that because that’s a safety issue, so we take that real seriously,” Avila said.

Doug Carter, KU electrical life safety supervisor, said wiring in Sellards hall, which was built almost 50 years ago, originally was designed to withstand one or two lamps per room – not the plethora of electronics students use today.

“We’ve been able to add circuits, which means less of a load in each room,” Carter said.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the trend of more and more electronics in student housing has contributed to an increase in campus fires nationwide. An NFPA report shows fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and other housing are up from 1,800 in 1998 to 3,300 in 2005.

“The wires get hot and if it gets hot enough, you start melting the insulation around the wires and, naturally, when you melt something, you can start a fire. … A lot of fires do start from electrical,” Avila said.

Avila said KU has been fortunate to not have any major electrical fires. And officials would like it to stay that way.

These older buildings still are slated for wiring updates, which are performed at a rate of one each summer: Grace Pearson, Pearson, Miller and Watkins scholarship halls; Oliver, Gertrude Sellards Pearson-Corbin and McCollum Halls; and Jayhawker Towers.

In the meantime, KU officials advise students living in buildings with old wiring to plug in minimal electronics at the same time, and to follow other guidelines set by the Department of Student Housing.