University of Arizona Facilities Management Electrician Joe Thomasson explains the pattern on the electrical panel underneath the Arizona State Museum is known as “alligator” paint on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. The electrical panel is an original system from when the museum was built in 1924.

Julianne Stanford / AZCIR

Visitors to the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona can see relics of the state’s history on display, but they might not realize what artifacts are hidden below them.

“When you get down in the basement there, you’ll see electrical systems and transformers that date to the 1930s,” said Chris Kopach, the school’s assistant vice president for facilities management. “They should be in the museums themselves, they’re that old.”

Of the nine large air handling systems in the museum, only one has been replaced since the building was constructed in 1924.

Age is a significant obstacle to even completing minor repairs that keep the systems up and running for a little bit longer, university electrician Tony Zaino said.

“The hardest part is the obsolete parts, the pieces and parts you cannot get anymore because they’re pretty much antiquated and, if it does have to be upgraded, then it’s a complete system.” Zaino said. “All new pieces, new parts, new wires, new conduit, upgraded to the standards for today.”

Overhauling the electrical or air handling systems, or, even worse, dealing with a system failure at the museum, would be a huge undertaking.

“With all the collections and exhibits, they require environmental qualities,” Zaino said. “We’d have to do a shutdown to be able to take the equipment out of service, upgrade it and bring it back in.”

The systems have done pretty well until now, Zaino said, but the repairs become more urgent each year.

“With something as old as this,” he said, “time is of the essence.”

The electrical system and the air handling system in the state museum are still in operation today because the university doesn’t have the money to replace them, along with many other deferred maintenance projects that keep getting pushed off.

Ten years ago, the estimated cost of deferred maintenance projects at the university was $61 million. Since then, the cost has ballooned to an estimated $312 million.

Left unaddressed, it could increase to more than $1 billion by 2025, according to projections the school presented to the Arizona Board of Regents in November 2016.

The university currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to make repairs.

“What’s happened over the years is that the dollars coming from the state continue to decrease in a dramatic way, and deferred maintenance hasn’t been funded at all,” Kopach said.

None of the university’s $2.5 billion budget for the 2016-17 school year was allocated for deferred maintenance projects. If needed, money has to be pulled from somewhere else in the facilities maintenance budget, Kopach said.

The incoming state funding of over $10 million a year starting in 2019 is a “game changer,” said Vice President of Communications Chris Sigurdson.

Kopach said several of the university’s buildings still in use today were built in the 1950s and 1960s and need serious maintenance and refurbishment.

“Their systems have exceeded and, in some cases, doubled their useful lives,” Kopach said. “So, an air handling system that maybe should be lasting a 25-year period, we’ve been able to, from good maintenance and preventative maintenance, keep those items working 50 years-plus.”

And now another generation of buildings will soon join them on the list.

“We have another roughly 1.5 million square feet coming online in the next 10 years,” Kopach said. “Ten years after that, you’ll have 4 million square feet, so it’s a major issue that’s affecting our older buildings.”

Systems like the one found in the state museum continue to serve the school as long as maintenance can continue to keep them running, and parts for repairs can be found until the money for a complete overhaul is available — or until the system completely fails.

“That’s what we don’t want to happen. If you have a catastrophic failure, then a lot of different things come into place,” Kopach said. “If you lose air handling systems in our hot desert weather, that’s not going to work for our students, faculty and staff, and so we want to be as proactive as possible.”

Across the university’s main campus, the list of deferred maintenance includes more than $155 million worth of heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs and replacement, $37 million in plumbing repair and $8 million in electrical repairs.

There are seven buildings that Goldman labeled “high-risk,” during his November 2016 presentation to the Board of Regents.

The Animal and Comparative Medical Sciences building, which houses the Department of Veterinary Sciences, is one building that will finally be getting refurbishment in the coming year to address its aging systems.

“The ductwork, at the time, was per code in the ’50s and ’60s and now, it’s way past its useful life and it’s failing on us and it’s creating some indoor air quality issues,” Kopach said.

The building needs $16 million in maintenance, $12 million of which is needed for heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs, $1.7 million for repairs to external walls, almost $479,000 for electrical systems and $1.6 million for plumbing work.

During the yearlong project that university officials say will begin in the fall, facilities maintenance will demolish the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems inside the building. The building itself will remain intact, along with many of the laboratories inside.Despite the budget restrictions, the university plans to spend what it needs to make the necessary repairs to the building.

“We’ll continue to spend money and allocate resources where we need to,” Sigurdson said.

Kopach said despite the age of the systems, they aren’t a public safety concern for students and faculty members inside the buildings.

“Our buildings are safe. All of our buildings are safe to work in,” Kopach said. “You might have some people who are hypersensitive to air quality, but it’d be no different if you went outside during spring with the allergy season.”

This article comes from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, of which the Arizona Daily Star is a partner.