HVAC Crew Braves the Cold to Keep You Warm

By Joe Flaherty

For the heating and cooling team within Facilities Services, December through January is their Super Bowl. With huge swings in temperature, Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) staff like Scott Barker have to keep buildings heated at a comfortable temperature without wasting energy from the Biomass facility. Buildings across campus, many of them old, cannot always be trusted to handle the influx of steam from beneath the Biomass Plant. On a chilly afternoon in December just before finals, the steam and water were shut off in Starr Hall. The reason for the shutdown was that Barker had been notified that a great deal of excess steam was seen exiting out of the basement on one side of Starr Hall.

“Anybody in Starr will get an email that says, ‘At 9 a.m., we’re going to have a water shutdown today,’” Barker said. “We’ve scheduled two things today to try to consolidate the downtime for the building.”

The first task, which fell to Barker and fellow HVAC and Refrigeration Staff Member Jon Manns, was to replace a condensate pump deep within the bowels of Starr to prevent the excess steam. Barker and Manns tinkered with the steam pump, a small metal sphere designed to open and close with a snap depending on how much steam is needed.

True to its name, HVAC handles everything related to heat and cooling.

“We not only work on all the steam equipment — all the refrigeration systems and every bit of air conditioning is in our office as well,” Barker said.

The plumbing shop was working in Starr Hall’s basement that day as well, necessitating the water shutdown.

“The plumbing shop has the water off, and they’re replacing the pressure-reducing stations,” Barker said, “which reduce the pressure of the water coming into the showers of the building.”

When students turn on water in dormitories, the heat comes from the Biomass Plant and runs through heat exchangers that use the steam to heat water.

“We use steam to heat up anything, so that’s how we heat the hot water for heating systems as well,” Barker said. The steam trap Barker replaced in Starr Hall’s basement is designed to remove condensate from that steam.

Even though it is currently the coldest month of the year, the steam does not run constantly. Barker explained that if the outside temperature is 51°F or above, the steam pumps do not run. Additionally, the steam is heated to far beyond what the actual temperature is when water comes out of a shower or faucet.

“We’re giving your building 138 degrees of heating water,” Barker said, a step in the process designed to make sure the heat is not lost in the pipes en route to its destination. The colder it is outside, the hotter the steam is when it leaves the Biomass Plant.

Barker and Manns were on a tight schedule to get the steam back on.

“We better get trucking,” Barker said, glancing at his watch. The two grabbed the repaired pump and walked over to Starr Hall.

“Between the plumbing, electric and HVAC shop, we have a lot of things on our plate everyday,” said Barker.

Down a rickety flight of stairs in Starr, a cramped basement had two plumbers from Facilities working on the pipes to one side. The building, one of the oldest on campus (built in 1860) and not designed for modern equipment, had pipes, gauges and valves crowding what seemed like every inch of space in the dark basement. The small space was sweltering.

“The newer buildings are better,” Barker admitted, referencing the tight quarters.

There was a great deal of elbow grease required to get a relatively small steam pump into place. At one point, Barker had to practically heave the pipes to get them situated. Eventually, the valve was in place and all systems were back to normal. The pace of the steam that had been billowing out of Starr’s vent had been reduced to its usual rate.

Manns said that many people call the HVAC team to let them know that their heating is not working when, in fact, the lack of heat is intentional. “We get a lot of no heat calls [when] we don’t have the heat on in the buildings because it is kind of warm outside,” he said. “We can look at their buildings from afar and look at what is going on before we get there.”

Barker, on a nearby computer, pulled up graphs through the Energy Management System (EMS) showing data from all of the buildings on campus, including internal temperatures and even data on individual rooms.

“We can pick any building on campus,” Barker said.

The system is sophisticated enough that the tightly monitored controls within the Service Building rarely malfunction. More often than not, heating monitors are damaged because of windows being left open.

“We’ve had heating systems break open but it is mostly from human error,” Barker said.

Ultimately, Barker said keeping the windows closed can have an outsized impact.

“When it’s cold outside, students should keep their windows shut, because it will affect everybody else. It’s not just them, it’s everybody,” Barker said. The importance of keeping windows closed has to do with how the older systems measure the temperature of the building as a whole.

“Certain people have certain rooms, so if it’s 30 degrees out and the kid in that room has his window wide open, the temperature in there will be fairly cold so it will drive our heat exchanger to go open and give you guys a bunch of heat,” Barker said. “Meanwhile, that heat is going right outside.”