Students at Southern Oregon University woke up to cold showers and chilly buildings Wednesday after the school had to switch from natural gas to a backup fuel source for its boilers in order to preserve gas service for the rest of the city.

Students at Southern Oregon University woke up to cold showers and chilly buildings Wednesday after the school had to switch from natural gas to a backup fuel source for its boilers in order to preserve gas service for the rest of the city.

SOU is an "interruptible industrial customer" of gas company Avista, so, under its contract, it can be asked to stop using gas when other customers on the system need it, explained Kris Ransom, Avista's manager of industrial markets in Oregon.

The arrangement potentially cuts natural gas costs for the school, which can run its boilers on fuel oil as a backup.

With demand for natural gas high in this week's cold snap, the utility asked the campus to make the switch at about 2 a.m. Wednesday, officials said.

When the switch to fuel oil was made, though, the boilers — which provide steam heat for campus buildings and hot water in the residence halls — briefly shut down. The system's steam lines and radiators rapidly cooled before the boilers were back online with a new fuel, said Jim Beaver, SOU's marketing and communications director.

"During the switch, we got some cold spots," he said, adding that as the boilers went to work, additional heat was rerouted to residence halls, which had gotten chilly.

While some students faced cold showers before heading off to take finals Wednesday, a full supply of steam-heated water was expected to be available by afternoon, he said.

Avista was monitoring natural gas use and pressure in its distribution lines, but Ransom said SOU could face another interruption before weather warms Friday.

The term ends Friday, so the campus population already is dwindling as students wrap up finals and head home for the holidays.

"The timing could have been better for this cold snap," Beaver said. "Next week, we have no classes and no one will be on campus."

Ransom said Avista has between 60 and 70 interruptible industrial customers in Oregon. SOU was the only such customer in Southern Oregon interrupted this week as Arctic air lingered over the region, pushing overnight temperatures into the teens.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485 or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.