Image of pipe infrastructure.



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 to above boiling temperatures 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 Consequently, as a campus, we had a choice to make:  Upgrade the deteriorating system with a new, but outdated, inefficient technology (steam), or invest in a cleaner, greener, safer, more durable system that uses hot water generated by electricity (a renewable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.


Beginning the summer of 2020, and for the next two years, we are going to replace our campus’s oldest, natural-gas powered steam system – located throughout the Quad District – with a new, renewable-energy-powered, hot water system. This involves the installation of two new distribution heat exchangers, one located at our campus’s Central Heating and Cooling Plant and the other on the southwest side of Wickson Hall.  Additionally, 4 miles of underground supply and return piping will be laid to connect the hot water system to 31 buildings. Lastly, the buildings served by the new hot water system will need their existing building heating, building domestic and industrial hot water exchangers replaced.


This project will be disruptive to highly trafficked areas throughout central campus and will involve taking building systems offline for a couple of days to upgrade them 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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