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Tide Bites: Celebrating 2 Friday Harbor Labs staff teams

  • Written by Megan Dethier & Bernadette Holthuis

If you haven’t spent time at FHL you may not realize that it is a miniature university campus, with its own housing (dorms, cottages, and other units), full-service dining hall, library, and lecture spaces in addition to the lab buildings, research equipment, seawater system, and dock operations.  Over 60 buildings, from large dormitories and labs to one-person huts, are scattered over the roughly 30-acre campus that comprises the “developed” part of the 476-acre FHL preserve.  

The campus receives electricity and freshwater from County and Town utilities and sends its wastewater to the Town treatment plant via a complex network of conduit, pipes and – in the case of wastewater – lift stations.  Another network of pipes, extending from one end of campus to the other, supplies the lifeblood of FHL research and education: running seawater, delivered to over 150 tanks inside and among the lab buildings.  

The campus grounds, buildings and associated infrastructure, some of it dating back to the early 1920s, require a lot of person-power to keep functioning and clean.  This Tide Bites sings the praises of the largely unseen and unsung Maintenance and Custodial crews who provide that power!  Later ‘Bites will celebrate some of the other teams essential to our operation.

Doug, FHL Maintenance Supervisor, decided to pose in the air with a chainsaw!

The upkeep of everything – from mowing the campus grounds to repairing seawater pumps – is the purview of our small but amazing Maintenance Crew: Doug (supervisor), George, Tommy, Dan and David.  When campus is busy, as it (thankfully) is right now, much of their time is spent responding to urgent situations: an indoor seawater flood, a malfunctioning cold room thermostat, a clogged toilet, or any of a thousand other small and large issues that need immediate attention (out of necessity, all crew members must be jacks-of-all-trades).  When campus is quieter, the team can focus on ongoing projects such as renovation work.


FHL Maintenance crew, clockwise from upper left: George, Tommy, Daniel and David.

Water shoots from a hole in old pipe that had to be dug up.

Systems that require both short-term fixes and long-term work are the aging freshwater and wastewater pipes.  At least once a year, somewhere on campus a freshwater pipe suddenly breaks, requiring an immediate, all-hands-on-deck response.  The locations of these major breaks and minor leaks are often difficult to identify, requiring substantial detective work (digging) by the crew.  Over time, water line repairs have substantially tightened up FHL’s consumption of this precious island resource.  While they work to stem the flow the water OUT of pipes, the crew also faces the problem of water flowing INTO pipes: namely, groundwater entering cracked and otherwise compromised sewer lines.  For years, due to this inflow and infiltration in Fall and Winter, the volume of wastewater that FHL was sending TO the water treatment plant far exceeded the volume of fresh water it RECEIVED from Town.  With the treatment plant needlessly processing thousands of gallons of groundwater, FHL contemplated digging up the entire subterranean infrastructure of campus and replacing thousands of feet of pipe.

Enter high tech!  Doug brought in a Tumwater-based company specializing in “ditchless” pipe repair.  The company fed cameras through the (often unmapped) lines, finding an alarming number of weaknesses and breaks in the pipes.  Then came the fun part: they inserted flexible CIPP (Cured in Place Pipe) into each compromised section of existing pipe, then ran an ultraviolet light through the insert to harden and anneal it to the inner surface of the original pipe, thus creating a like-new section of very slightly smaller diameter than the original.  While these repairs were taking place, FHL experienced a coincident break in a water main running under the dorms.  After consultation with the same company, Doug had them install a lining in that pipe – one designed for lines carrying potable water.  Completed earlier this year, the newly-lined sewer pipes and water main are expected to last for 50+ years.  The approach saved a very expensive, time-consuming, and muddy mess, and we are so glad that the crew looked “outside the box” for a solution!

Even more invisible than the “keeping it all together” work of the Maintenance Crew is the “keeping it all clean” work of the Custodial Team: Lee Ann (supervisor), Kathy, Molly and Rhonda.  They keep not only the housing units (with close to 200 beds) but also the offices and lab spaces clean – not an easy job with high turnover, muddy boots, and old buildings – and researchers whose minds are more on the science they are doing than the mess they are making!  By the end of 2022 they will have cleaned at a minimum: all rooms in three undergraduate dorms and 15 huts nine times each, plus daily cleaning of dorm bathrooms and hallways; all rooms in graduate student dorms four times each; and other housing units about 700 times total.  And this is a fairly easy year compared to pre-COVID times when we hosted more conferences.  Their biggest accomplishment is in part a psychological one: cleaning almost all the units on campus in one day during one of our big turnovers (e.g. between our two summer course sessions), and still returning to work to do it all over again (and do it well)!

FHL’s Custodial team in their carts. From left: Supervisor Lee Ann, Molly, Rhonda. Not pictured: Kathy.

Besides the day-to-day challenge of overcoming dirt (and entropy, we scientists might say), the custodial team has managed to make gradual improvements in the housing units.  During the winter when campus is relatively quiet, they do intense “detailing” of the units, gradually getting them up to a higher standard of cleanliness.  They replace old pots and pans, swap out furniture and appliances that have outlived their usefulness, and improve our carbon footprint by putting recycle containers in each housing unit to encourage recycling.

The team of course deals with unpleasant messes, but also has some amusing stories.  Each custodian has an electric golf cart in which they carry cleaning supplies, linens, etc. around campus.  One early morning when Lee Ann was cleaning dorm bathrooms, some students took her golf cart for a joy ride!  Luckily it came back in one piece.  Lee Ann also has raccoon stories: “No one told me when I first started not to leave food in my golf cart.  I was cleaning the Lecture Hall one morning and looked out the window to see one raccoon with my banana and another with my breakfast bar, happily munching away.  Another early morning Elizabeth and I were having coffee in the dining hall.  It was the middle of winter so no one was around.  We kept hearing loud noises under the floor by the pool table.  When we walked over to check it out there was a raccoon paw sticking up through a hole in the floor, feeling around.  We figured it was looking for a handout!”

The scientific discoveries at the Labs that we write about each month are only possible due to the tireless efforts of our esteemed staff, including those who keep the seawater flowing and our spaces free of clutter.  They are integral to the community that has developed at our marine station and we are proud of them.  A big thanks from all our students and scientists for all they do!

You may donate to FHL’s general operations (Nuts & Bolts) fund here.

Last modified onFriday, 05 August 2022 01:01