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OPP Unsung Heroes: A Tour Of The Office Of Physical Plant

Have you ever squeezed a stress ball until the foam seeped between your fingers? Once you release your grip, it returns to the perfect little foam ball that it was before you crushed it with all your strength. It always returns to that perfect, little cylindrical form.

This reminds me of Penn State’s campus. It is perfect all the time. The grass is cut. The water is flowing. The sidewalks are clear. The lights are on. The classrooms are clean. The air is moving. It’s like Penn State is in some sort of simulation where everything is automatically maintained and pristine. 

This isn’t Sim City though. This is the real world. The campus we live on, learn in, and love so dearly doesn’t miraculously maintain itself. Someone has to do the chores that keep Penn State operating. That someone is formally known as the Office of Physical Plant or OPP.

I am confident that many of you have absolutely no clue what or who I am talking about. Well, have you ever seen all those white vehicles constantly zipping around campus? If you still don’t know, allow me to refresh your memory.

This is the OPP. Well, not necessarily the vehicles, but the people driving them and many others. The OPP is made up of about 1,400 people.

According to the OPP’s website, “Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant (OPP) stewards more than 22,000 acres of land and more than 32 million square feet of buildings.” These are the people that cut the grass on Old Main Lawn, fill the water towers, plow the sidewalks, keep the lights on, clean each and every classroom, and make sure the air is flowing to them. These are the people that make Penn State the beautiful campus that it is.

Think of it like this. The OPP is a lot like Santa Claus. For the most part, you don’t see its workers, but you experience the incredible work. Unlike Santa, though, this work is mostly a thankless job without much recognition or praise.

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to tour a couple of the areas of the OPP and see firsthand some of what goes on behind the scenes. There are so many more areas and jobs beyond these few, but I sincerely hope that this gives you a glimpse into how the campus operates and who keeps it going. Most of all, I hope this brief summary ignites an appreciation for those who are rarely seen and often go unknown — the unsung heroes of the OPP.

OPP’s Service Garage

What happens when the Beaver Stadium lawn mower needs repair? Do you think James Franklin is elbow deep in the hood, covered in grease, trying to fix it? No, there are masters of machinery right across the street from Beaver Stadium in OPP’s service garage.

It isn’t just lawnmowers. As a matter of fact, it isn’t even just OPP vehicles. The service garage takes care of all Penn State vehicles, including those big blue buses, campus police vehicles, and even a couple of University Park Airport vehicles. Nonetheless, the majority of the vehicles and machinery that they work on are OPP, which is no small feat considering there are more than 1,700 OPP pieces alone.

Cars. Trucks. Vans. Cranes. Plows. Mowers. Electric Segways. UTVs. Skid Loaders. Garbage Trucks. Generators. Yes, you heard that last one correctly. Just about every building on campus has a stationary generator in case the power goes out. These generators can be absolutely massive, big enough for powering ships on the Great Lakes. An oil change on one of the generators under the Computer Building uses about 65 gallons of oil. That is enough for more than forty oil changes on a Ford F-150.

This is far from a comprehensive list. There are numerous other types of vehicles and equipment that the Service Garage works on. Dave Demko, supervisor of Garage Services, said it best, “We don’t specialize in Ford or Chevy. We specialize in everything.”

From oil changes to state inspections, the service garage truly can do it all. The garage even has a full-service body shop that includes an area specifically for painting where the iconic OPP white can be applied or refinished on vehicles.

Currently, there are 12 people who work on all the maintenance and repairs of all the Penn State vehicles — just 12 people and more than 2,500 pieces in total that come through OPP’s service garage. It is not only about the quantity of the work these individuals do, but the diversity of the work they complete. One day, they’re working on a crane and the next could be a small electric Segway. This group has even done work refinishing antique lamp fixtures from buildings on campus.

“If it’s remotely possible, we’ve done it,” Demko said.

When I was a freshman on campus, I quickly took notice of all of these white vehicles around campus. Each vehicle, no matter the shape or size, has a circular decal on it with a number on it. I know now that these numbers are what the OPP uses to keep track of everything in its system. Anyways, ever since I noticed these numbered vehicles my freshman year, I have been on a personal mission to find OPP No. 1. Unfortunately, my quest for this elusive vehicle came to a defeating end during my tour of the service garage. There is no OPP No. 1 anymore.

The method that the OPP uses to assign a number to a vehicle or piece of equipment is not very intricate or complex. The numbering simply goes in numerical order no matter what comes in. For example, a brand-new lawnmower could come in and be assigned No. 1803. The next piece of equipment to come in, even if it were a Boeing 747, would be assigned No. 1804. Originally, the numbers of retired vehicles were reused, but that no longer occurs. As such, OPP No. 1 is gone forever but is never to be forgotten. Rest in power.

OPP Supply Chain

Have you ever been inside an Amazon fulfillment center? Me neither, but I’ve seen videos, and the OPP store’s facility is somewhat similar to one, in my opinion. However, unlike an Amazon fulfillment center, OPP stores, the storeroom of OPP supply chain, aren’t delivering neon green Crocs to little Duncan in Cranberry Township. They’re delivering and distributing items and materials that are needed in order to keep Penn Sttate beautiful and running smoothly.

OPP supply chain supports MRO, or Maintenance, Repairs, and Operations. These are the people who replace air filters in buildings, update the swipe access readers to newer tap ones, or repair the door that you threw a desk at when that Canvas grade came in. Those air filters, new swipe readers, doors, or any tools needed to complete the job all originated from OPP stores.

“We support our technicians and teams across the campus by providing them with materials and items that they need to fix whatever is broken, or whatever needs to be repaired, or whatever needs to be updated,” Inventory Control and Distribution Manager Turtle Patterson said.

In a brief summary, here is roughly how it works. OPP stores order the things, receive the things, hold the things, and distribute the things. Whenever someone in OPP needs something, they can go into the asset management program and order whatever it is they require. OPP stores will process this order and deliver it if it’s a stock item. These deliveries often happen around campus each morning, but they can also deliver items within an hour or earlier at times if needed.

In addition to the main facility near Beaver Stadium, four area shops in the four quadrants of campus have their own satellite stock rooms. These stock rooms will carry commonly used stock items for buildings particular to that quadrant, allowing for even faster OPP stores response times.

OPP stores distribute two types of things: items and materials. Items are kept in stock in the OPP stores facility. These are more of the common and frequently required things that have an asset management number assigned to them. Materials are often not kept in stock and must be ordered when needed. Materials don’t have an asset management number assigned to them. 

OPP stores have a lot of items: light bulbs, door handles, cleaning supplies, technician tools, ceiling tiles, plumbing pipes, and much more. OPP stores have roughly 7,400 different kinds of items. From big to small, they’ve got it all. Interestingly, the most common item that moves through OPP stores is air filters. Yes, that crisp and clean Penn State building air wouldn’t be possible without the work of the OPP supply chain.

“I liken us to a Lowe’s, but like a Lowe’s on steroids that is more focused specifically on what we do, which is support MRO,” Patterson said.

Why do we need this, though? Why not just go to Lowe’s? Well, there are a couple of reasons, but here are the two main ones. First, many buildings on campus are old and unique. The items and materials specifically for Penn State buildings cannot be found at Lowe’s or the local hardware store. Second, OPP supply chain provides the opportunity to work directly with vendors. Due to the volume at which Penn State requires and orders from these vendors, OPP supply chain is able to secure better prices than if they were to not work directly with the vendors.

Similar to OPP’s service garage, OPP supply chain plays a unique role in this little city we call Penn State by supporting those who directly do the work to maintain our beautiful campus.

OPP Water Services

When Farmers’ High School came to the place we know now as Penn State in the 1850s, there was no running water. For the most part, the university was here before the town. So, the university had to get high-quality water flowing on its own. And that it did…from the ground.

Fast forward a bit. The university grew in size just a tad from its Farmers’ High School days, and with it, grew the water needs. Water tower No. 1 came into existence near the Nittany Lion Inn. This tower is no longer in use, but three more were constructed — towers No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Eventually, towers No. 3 and No. 4 were raised about 16 feet higher into the air to increase the campus’s pressure grade. Even later on, tower No. 2 would be torn down and replaced with tower No. 5 right beside where its predecessor resided. Presently, tower No. 3 is behind the OPP facility near Beaver Stadium, tower No. 4 is at the golf course, and tower No. 5 sits in the middle of the Stuckeman, Forum, and Theatre buildings.

The latest addition to this water park at Penn State is a state-of-the-art water treatment facility built in 2017. This new facility was built with the future in mind and is expected to sustain the university for many years to come.

It also left one annoyance regarding Penn State water treatment in the past. Previously, the water arriving at campus buildings was very hard water and required hauling salt to every single building. With this new facility, that hardness is removed well before traveling through campus pipes and reaching campus buildings.

Penn State’s water is top-tier, but it isn’t a simple process to get it that way. Water is pumped from the ground through wells to this incredible facility. It then encounters micro-filtration through membranes, a granular activated carbon treatment, water from the well field with the highest hardness goes through nanofiltration, then all the water gets pH adjustment, and it’s finished off with further disinfection. Lastly, the water “gets pumped out into the distribution system, either directly to the buildings or to the water towers.” It’s like the Brita in your fridge, but much more comprehensive and substantially larger.

How much bigger? According to Jim Hosgood, supervisor of Water Services, “the plant is rated for 5.2 million gallons.” To put that in perspective, this new facility could produce enough water to fill the HUB fish tank about 10,400 times every day. On average, the plant produces between 2.2 to 2.4 million gallons a day for Penn State. I knew that the campus was thirsty, but I didn’t realize you all were THAT thirsty.

Enough about the machinery and technical stuff. Let’s talk people. There are just six operators who keep this behemoth system running 24/7. Four maintenance mechanics maintain the plant itself, the water towers, and the distribution system that includes fire hydrants, valves, and water lines. Two water meter/backflow preventer technicians work on the building water meters and backflow preventers. Lastly, there is one instrument technician who troubleshoots and maintains all water system instrumentation.

Next time you’re filling your water bottle, washing your hands, taking a swim, or doing literally anything with water on campus, remember what all that water has been through to get to where it is, with you, at that current moment.

Hopefully, this glance into a few work areas of the OPP has given you a greater appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep Penn State the magnificent place that it is. Although we got a glance into just three areas of the OPP, there are plenty more including Operations, Design and Construction, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), Planning, Design and Properties, Commonwealth Services, Operational Technology, OPP Finance and Business, and the College of Medicine facilities. 

“With more than 1,400 dedicated employees, OPP works hard 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure Penn Staters have safe, reliable, and excellent facilities and the infrastructure that supports them,” Dr. William Sitzabee, vice president for facilities planning and management and Penn State’s chief facilities officer, said. “We take great pride in supporting the university mission across the Commonwealth.”

So, next time you see an OPP worker mowing the grass or fixing a light bulb, give them a little smile as a gesture of gratitude for all of the work that they do in support of us, our campus, and Penn State as a whole.

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About the Author

Rico Gore

Rico is a senior advertising major from Pittsburgh who has been with Onward State since just a couple weeks into his freshman year. He loves to drink Diet Coke and eat Mexican food. You can follow Rico on Instagram @RealBigRico and TikTok @RealBigRico.

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