Warm doorknobs across campus confound students, faculty

(Credit: Megan Zendek/Fourth Estate)

There are hundreds — if not thousands — of doorknobs around Mason’s campus, from residence halls to classrooms. Without realizing it, the average student probably handles at least a dozen doorknobs on a daily basis and comes to expect a certain temperature from them — neither too hot nor too cold, but just right, like Baby Bear’s porridge.

With this in mind, it makes sense that students would notice a change in the temperature of the doorknobs. Lately, students have been reporting that certain doorknobs, specifically those located outside of classrooms like Thompson L004, Engineering 1110, the side room in Hanover and the back entrance to the Office of Admissions, are unusually warm. Though these doorknobs are not warm enough to burn or hurt anybody, they are warm enough to be unsettling.

Members of the Mason community gave varied reasons as to why they thought these doorknobs were mysteriously warm.

Dr. Kathleen Alligood, associate dean of the Honors College, posited that some doorknobs are warmer than others because “more people touch them.” This theory could work, since the friction generated by a large number of people touching a certain doorknob might increase its temperature.

Two freshmen, Abby Lee, a criminology and psychology major, and Noah Black, a global affairs major, offered a different theory, guessing that the heat might come from “hot water pipes near the door frames.”

“I think the hot water pipes are connecting with the door frames, causing the heat to spread,” Lee said.

Professor Miruna Stanica, an assistant English professor, mulled it over and eventually wagered a guess. “I actually have a theory!” she said. “I noticed that this door [the door to one of her classrooms] has a card unlocking mechanism, and I think it’s connected to that.”

Jim McCarthy, the head of physical security on campus, was able to confirm which of these theories was correct. McCarthy’s department handles the locks on all the doors on campus, so if anybody could explain this mysterious warmth, it would be him.

“Well, I’d like to tell you it’s something supernatural,” he laughed. “That would certainly be the more exciting answer. The reality is that these are electronic lock sets that are used in conjunction with our card access; they’re low-voltage or battery-operated, usually 12 or 24 volts. They’re normally warm to the touch, but if they over-heated, they would automatically turn off and not hurt anybody.”

Stanica was right: the electronics in the key card system pulse electricity through the doorknobs they are connected to. While not at a dangerous level, the voltage is high enough to make the doorknobs feel warm to the touch. A recent inspection of the problem confirmed this, as each of reported doorknobs was connected to a key card system.

Put “warm doorknobs” down on the list of Mason mysteries solved. McCarthy was probably right, though — a supernatural reason might be slightly more exciting.