Seventy-five years ago, our campus laid the groundwork to heat our buildings with steam. This steam is generated at our Central Heating and Cooling Plant by heating water with natural gas, and delivered to individual buildings via a maze of pipes.
Now the system is old, inefficient, reliant on fossil fuels and in need of renewal. Consequently, as a campus, we had a choice to make: Upgrade the deteriorating system with a new, but outdated, inefficient technology — steam—or invest in a cleaner, greener, safer, more durable system that uses hot water generated by electricity, a renewable resource.
We chose to move toward a more sustainable future and away from fossil fuel use, a seemingly easy choice, but actually implementing this shift is anything but. It’s going to get messy, but it’s worth it.
Steam vs. Hot Water: What’s the Difference?
Steam. Our steam system uses natural gas to boil the water that creates the steam to heat many of our campus buildings. Beyond the fact that our steam heat relies on fossil fuels, it is inefficient. If you have ever seen steam rising from underground grates or the chimneys of our Central Heating and Cooling Plant that’s not just steam, it’s lost energy. We currently lose an estimated 30-50% of the heat we generate as a result of steam loss via our aging infrastructure and distribution system. When steam is lost that means water and energy are also lost.
Hot water. Our shift to a hot water system will ultimately use electricity instead of natural gas to heat the water that heats our buildings. Not only can electricity be produced from a renewable resource – thanks to our campus’s solar power plant and other off-site solar power programs and partnerships – hot water does not need to be heated to the same boiling levels as steam, making it more efficient and safer to maintain. It saves energy, takes advantage of renewable resources, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, and reduces our water use since steam will no longer be lost to the atmosphere or escape from our aging infrastructure.
What to expect
This project involves road and sidewalk closures and requires some building systems to be taken offline for a couple of days while the mechanical rooms are upgraded to work with the new system. Project managers from Design and Construction Management are working with our campus community on an individualized basis to schedule construction so that it impacts research, students or other programs to the least degree possible.
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Beginning the spring of 2020, we started replacing our campus’s natural-gas powered steam system with a new, renewable-energy-powered, hot water system. To complete this massive undertaking, construction is split into districts, each focused on converting one area of campus at time. A bulk of construction is digging trenches, installing new hot water pipes, insulating those pipes then restoring the surfaces that were dug up. Construction in each district also includes updating the heating infrastructure in every building so they can utilize hot water instead of steam. Additional changes are also planned for the central heating infrastructure, including improvements and retrofitting at the Central Heating and Cooling Plant.
The first area converted housed the oldest steam heating infrastructure, located in core campus in and around the Quad. Construction crews dug four miles of trenches and installed underground hot water supply and return piping to connect the new heating system to 31 buildings. The heating infrastructure in these buildings was updated with heat exchangers that could use hot water instead of steam. Lastly, a heat exchanger was installed in a temporary building to allow hot water to circulate in the district while the Central Heating and Cooling Plant continues to produce steam.
Read more about what completing this first step in the Big Shift means
As plans for future districts are approved, details and progress will continue to be tracked on this site.