Inside the ELB, steam is the new steam

November 26, 2018

Buried within UM-Dearborn’s state-of-the-art Engineering Lab Building, an old-school technology is still king.

When the vision started to take shape for tearing down the old Engineering Lab Building and putting up a modern replacement, most of the buzz understandably revolved around the instructional, lab and research spaces the new building would bring to campus. Gary Taylor was excited about all that, too. But the longtime head of plant operations at UM-Dearborn also had his eye on something buried deep within — and in some cases, underneath — the site.

It turns out, the old ELB was also the home of the campus’ trusty old steam plant — three 1950s-era boilers that had been faithfully dishing out a source of heat and hot water to the better part of campus via underground tunnels. Places as far south and east as the Mardigian Library and as far west as the Social Sciences Building all depended on the old system. But just like the old ELB, the steam plant was nearing the end of its life. And that gave Taylor a chance to do something he said every veteran facilities person dreams of: Namely, build a really, really big system that will keep things humming well past his tenure.

Updating this critical piece of campus infrastructure, however, didn’t necessarily mean the age of steam would be coming to a close at UM-Dearborn. While steam may seem like an archaic 19th-century technology — the kind of thing associated with locomotives — it’s still plenty viable in the 21st-century.

“Steam is what built America,” Taylor said. “But it’s still a big part of what powers the country.” In fact, after reviewing all the potential options for upgrading the core of the campus heating and hot water system, it became apparent the ideal option was to take those perfectly good steam lines and tunnels and hook them to a brand new, modern steam boiler.

For sure, the new system has some important upgrades. It has digital sensors and controls in place of manual ones. And it’s loaded with safety, redundancy and efficiency systems that make it a much smarter technology. Still, in a lot of ways, the plant is an old soul. Powered by combustion, the heart of the system is a series of three giant cylindrical natural gas boilers, each about 12 feet wide and tall and about 20 feet long. It’s pretty technical just how they do it, but their job, in a nutshell, is to heat up massive quantities of water and make steam. That steam is then piped through a network of pipes running underneath campus, which feed the energy to individual buildings.

That part of it is relatively straightforward. What was more challenging, according to ELB Project Manager Emily Hamilton, was shutting down the old boiler plant and getting the new one up and running in the middle of an active construction zone — and while keeping the rest of campus fully operational.

“When they brought these boilers in, they literally balanced them on two side-by-side forklifts, and then lowered them through a very tight opening in the side of the building,” Hamilton said. “Each one took a couple of hours. Out of all the things happening with this project, that’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.”

The other key pressure point was, of course, the timeline. Right now, campus steam is being supplied by a giant rent-a-boiler that’s operating from a flatbed truck — the kind of heavy-duty portable technology that Taylor said they use in America’s oil and gas fields. But a single boiler with no redundancy won’t cut it when the weather turns really cold. Luckily, Hamilton said they’re testing the new boilers now, and they’re on track to fire them up by the end of the year.

With one of the more intense parts of construction now nearing completion, the attention will turn again to installing all the flashier bells and whistles at the new ELB. That will likely mean the steam plant will fade back into obscurity, invisibly serving the campus for what Taylor said could very easily be a good 70 years. But in the facilities game, that’s the way they like it. When your best work goes completely unnoticed, Taylor said, that means you’ve done it right.

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