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October 12, 2000

Old computers are revamped, recycled, recirculated before they end up in Pitt's Surplus Property warehouse

It's an environmental night- mare: tons of obsolete, non- biodegradable computer equipment being dumped into landfills.

But that's not how the University deals with its own outmoded computers, according to Pitt information technology staff and the manager of the University's Surplus Property office.

Surplus Property, located at 400 N. Lexington Ave. in Point Breeze, is where Pitt's old computers go to die — or, more often, to be reborn for resale to departments and individual staff, faculty members and students.

The warehouse-like facility receives, on average, 500 computers and accessories annually but discards few of them, said manager Tom Heidkamp.

"Most of the equipment finds a home," he said. "There have been instances where we had to throw out broken monitors, but the newer monitors can be repaired, so there is a market for them."

As computer equipment arrives at Surplus Property, Heidkamp's staff sorts and evaluates it, rebuilding computers by combining parts and pieces from multiple systems.

"Our first approach is to offer these computers and accessories to the University community," Heidkamp said. "If that fails, we have recycling and resale companies as well as nonprofit community groups looking for used systems."

Computers, like other Pitt surplus equipment, are offered for sale to departments for 45 days after the equipment has been entered in the University's recycling program. Then it's available for sale to individual students and employees for an additional 45 days. After the total 90 days, surplus equipment may be sold to the general public.

Faculty, staff and students with valid Pitt ID cards may shop at Surplus Property for used computers as well as surplus desks, chairs, filing cabinets — even cars and vans, during Surplus Property's annual auction of University vehicles.

At Surplus Property, $100 can buy a used computer with a basic operating system (software not included) plus a laser printer, machines that are fine for simple tasks such as word processing.

"We're talking about equipment that sold for maybe $2,000 five years ago," Heidkamp said. "We sell it 'as is,' with no warranties, but we'll let you plug it in and try it out here before you buy it."

The amount of Pitt computer equipment that ends up at Surplus Property has decreased slightly in recent years, according to Heidkamp.

"Five years ago, a system was outdated a month or two after it was purchased and systems were upgraded in a short time. With the newer pentium systems, departments are upgrading some of their computers rather than purchasing new ones," Heidkamp said.

The increasing popularity of laptops is another factor. "We receive very few laptop computers," he said. "Mainly because of their size, departments tend to find a place to store them, rather than turning them in to us."

q Under Pitt's Surplus Equipment Recycling and Disposal policy (University policy 10-06-04), designated staff in each department are responsible for identifying, and turning over to Surplus Property, equipment that is judged to be obsolete, worn-out, no longer needed or too expensive to maintain.

Each unit largely determines for itself how to maximize its computers' lifespans.

The Katz Graduate School of Business, for example, seldom buys new computers for its staff, said Frank Miller, the school's director of information technology.

"What we do is buy new machines for our faculty, who use computers for research as well as e-mail and word processing. When these machines become outmoded within two or three years, they are still plenty strong enough for a staff desk," he said.

Like other schools, Katz upgrades and cannibalizes machines to prolong their usefulness. "Today, you can spend $500 to install a new processor that will make an older machine as good as a new, $2,000 machine," Miller said.

When computers are no longer powerful enough for Katz faculty and staff, the machines are placed in Ph.D. students' offices. "That's not giving them to the students," Miller noted. "That's making them available to students for use within the building, to get another six months'-to-a-year's use out of these computers before we send them to Surplus Property."

By the time Katz does send its old computers to Surplus Property, the machines' shells and power supplies sometimes are the only original parts remaining.

"I have no qualms whatsoever about getting rid of those machines," Miller said. "The most benefit they would be to us would be as doorstops."

Unlike an individual school or department, the University Library System (ULS) serves the whole Pitt community and must maintain the latest generations (or close to them) of hardware and software.

ULS replaces it approximately 300 PCs — half for use by the public, the other 150 for ULS personnel — every three years, said Timothy S. Deliyannides, head of the system's information systems department.

"A lot of the client software that we use for accessing databases has pretty rigorous hardware requirements," he said. "We have to keep our computers up to date so that students and faculty can access the databases they need."

Rather than send its old PCs automatically to Surplus Property, ULS hands some of them over (in exchange for a budgetary reimbursement) to units that are only too happy to adopt ULS's castoffs.

Several arts and sciences departments have acquired former ULS machines in recent years, Deliyannides said.

The College of General Studies employs a systems analyst to preserve spare computer parts for use in new equipment. Recently, the college donated a half-dozen computers to a program that helps the unemployed find work.

"They may just need to learn EXCEL or do word processing to update their resume. We donated the computers that were not upgraded enough for our internal systems," said Joanne Rosol, the college's manager of information evaluation and assessment.

Colleen Scholl, an administrative secretary in the School of Social Work, said the school upgrades its computers year-round. "We take a request, see if the budget allows, and then order new equipment or software as needed," Scholl said. "When machines are at their lowest end, they are sent to the Surplus Property warehouse."

Richard Colwell, an electronic specialist III in the School of Engineering, said he salvages parts as much as possible for the repair of existing computers before giving outmoded computers to Surplus Property.

Education school Dean Alan Lesgold said, "We don't keep many computers of a generation not made to handle networks. There are actually a couple of old 286s around the school, but they're okay for transcribing taped material.

"You figure if there's an initial investment of $1,800 for a computer and standard software, you have to factor in your budget an equal amount each year for maintenance and support," Lesgold added.

"So you're got three, four or five times the cost of the investment for maintaining a computer over, say, five years. Then there's a decision: Is it worth it to continue this, or should we buy a new one?"

While University policy requires units to turn in old computing equipment to Surplus Property, regardless of how obsolete or beaten up it may be, at least one Pitt school simply throws old keyboards and mice in the dumpster. "It's part of the original machine, but the Surplus Property people don't want that stuff. It's garbage for them, too," said the school's information technician, who asked that he and his school not be identified.

Surplus Property manager Heidkamp disagreed. "We prefer that all departments call or e-mail us prior to disposing of any surplus equipment or furniture," he said.

— Bruce Steele and Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 4

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