Image of pipe infrastructure.

Frequently Asked Questions


The Big Shift will affect everyone on campus. It's going to get messy, but it will be worth it. If, after you take a few moments to review our FAQ, you still have questions, please let us know via our contact page. Thank you for your interest, and we look forward to hearing from you.

  • What does this project involve?
  • Lots of digging! This project involves replacing an old, inefficient steam heat distribution system throughout the campus with a new energy-efficient hot water system. To complete this massive undertaking, construction will be split into districts, each focused on converting one area of campus at time. So far, we've completed the first (and largest) of the planned districts, the Quad district, which included laying over 4 miles of pipe and converting over 30 buildings in central campus.

    A bulk of construction will be digging trenches, installing new hot water pipes, insulating those pipes then restoring the surfaces that were dug up. Construction in each district will also include updating the heating infrastructure in every building so that they could utilize hot water instead of them. Additional changes are also planned for the central heating infrastructure, including improvements and retrofitting at the Central Heating and Cooling Plant. Read more about what construction involves.

  • Why is this project important?
  • This project gets UC Davis one step closer to carbon neutrality. We have a plan to get there and a large part of it involves reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. This project literally lays the groundwork for getting us closer to zero carbon emissions while immediately improving our energy use and water-saving goals. Read more about the university’s plans for a “Fossil-Free Future.”
  • Have we done anything similar to this before?
  • The Tercero housing building serves as a pilot for hot water heating on the UC Davis campus. During steam production, large amounts of waste heat from the boilers are expelled into the atmosphere in the form of high-temperature, non-harmful air exhaust. An additional condensing economizer was installed to capture the heat from the exhaust, which is now used to create hot water to heat Tercero.
  • Have other universities done this?
  • Stanford University and the University of British Columbia have successfully switched from steam heating to a hot water heating system. Stanford has reported that their new Central Energy Facility, which uses renewable electricity to heat and cool their campus, has reduced its campus greenhouse gas emission by 68%. Their successes serve as a model for our campus’s future plans to reduce our carbon footprint and heat our campus more sustainably.
  • What is the difference between steam heat vs. hot water heat?
  • 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 up 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 and, when steam is lost that means water is also lost.
    Hot water. Our 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
  • Why are we doing this now?
  • This university's heating system is dozens of years old – the oldest on campus – it’s inefficient, high maintenance and in need of renewal so, as a campus, we had a choice to make – upgrade the deteriorating system with a new, but outdated, inefficient technology (steam) or invest in cleaner, greener, safer, more durable systems (hot water). We chose the latter. Now, as gas-fired steam boilers are retired, we will take the time and effort to replace them with electric-powered, hot-water systems.
  • Will our campus achieve net-zero carbon emissions when this project is complete?
  • Although net-zero carbon emission is our goal, achieving it with a campus as large as ours will take time. This project aims to switch the majority of large buildings on campus from steam to hot water heating. By doing so, we could reduce our overall campus carbon emissions 40%.
  • What buildings will be affected and when?
  • 31 buildings were converted as part of the Quad District portion of the Big Shift. Once construction for the next portion, the Sprocket District, is underway, you can find details on the buildings that will be converted (and when).
  • Will my building temperature feel different?
  • The goal of this project is to heat our campus buildings in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way without compromising your comfort. You should not feel a difference in temperature after your building’s system have been converted. However, if for any reason you do experience a drastic difference in building temperature, we want to know! Send us your comfort feedback using our award-winning Web app: TherMOOstat.
  • How will my department’s current steam needs be met?
  • Project managers from Design and Construction Management will be working on an individualized basis with each building to ensure minimal impact on research, academic or business activities. Find examples of solutions we've implemented so far.
  • How are our campus buildings heated now?
  • Most of our campus has been heated by steam since the 1930s. The natural gas we use to produce the steam accounts for about 40% of our campus’s carbon footprint. The aging infrastructure combined with the large carbon emission from steam heating makes the heating system less efficient than heating with hot water.
  • Can I visit our Central Heating and Cooling Plant?
  • Yes, tours are available on a request basis. If you or your organization are interested in visiting the Central Heating and Cooling Plant, contact Facilities Management's Customer Experience Center at (530) 752-1655 to schedule a tour.
  • What else do we do to keep our buildings energy efficient?
  • The Energy and Engineering unit within Facilities Management is dedicated to improving energy efficiency in existing buildings. Below is a list of programs they have designed to conserve energy, reduce cost and contribute towards a more sustainable campus.
    ACE – The Active Commissioning Enterprise (ACE) program implements monitoring-based building commissioning projects to reduce existing buildings’ energy consumption through system improvements and upgrades.

    SWARM – About 15% of campus building square footage’s heating and cooling is not visible on the central system. The SWARM program increases these buildings’ energy use visibility, optimizes temperature control and allows smaller buildings to participate in other campus energy-saving initiatives.
    ECO Mode – Some spaces on campus were designed as labs when they were first built; however, many are no longer used to perform hazardous activities that may require high volume ventilation. ECO Mode implements a reduced ventilation rate that saves energy and improves occupants’ comfort.
    Holiday Shutdown – Our energy engineers implemented more relaxed heating, cooling and ventilation schedules for buildings that are typically vacant during administrative holidays.