Aug. 18, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 2

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    The hottest job on campus? Working for the Steam Plant

    s Even on days when it's 90 degrees in the shade, it's likely to be hotter in Fergus O'Rourke's workplace.

    Dressed in a blue uniform and carrying a jug of water, O'Rourke goes underground each day to walk the main tunnel of the Steam Plant -- a mile-long, seven-foot-high tunnel that stretches from the plant itself, at 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue, to the Administration Building. In the tunnel's heat, which surpasses 100 degrees, he checks valves to make sure that, even in summer, steam is being supplied evenly to campus buildings.

    "You take a shower when you're done, and you drink lots of water, sometimes as much as a gallon in a day," said O'Rourke, one of three members of the plant's tunnel crew. The crew maintains the main tunnel as well as the myriad smaller, four-foot-by-six-foot tunnels that snake under the quadrangles to campus buildings.

    Like other employees on staff at the plant, the members of the tunnel crew carry out their tasks in virtual anonymity. Their work and that of the 19 other employees at the Steam Plant goes unnoticed by design -- it's an operation carefully put together with safeguards and redundancies to ensure that members of the campus community seldom have reason to think about a problem at the Steam Plant.

    The importance of the crew's work is clear. "Considering this is the only source of steam for the University, the smooth and continuous operation of this plant is vital," said Gary Palmer, Superintendent of the Steam Plant. "If this plant were to go down on a cold day, the entire campus would have to close."

    The plant's operations indeed translate into some staggering statistics.

    Together, the plant's four boilers are capable of producing enough steam to heat 100,000 homes. The plant is also responsible for helping keep campus buildings cool in the summer. Many of the new buildings on campus, including the Biological Sciences Learning Center and Jules F. Knapp Medical Research Center Complex, use a steam-powered air-conditioning system.

    The plant's annual output amounts to 1 billion pounds of steam from 1 billion pounds of water, much of it recycled throughout the system. The steam goes to all 151 buildings on campus, with about half of what the plant generates going to the Hospitals, where it is used for such purposes as heating water for sterilization.

    At the plant, the steam is generated and superheated to a temperature of 450 degrees -- which explains why the job of walking the tunnels is such a hot one. Upon its return for recycling, the steam, now in the form of condensate water, has cooled to a still-scalding 180 degrees.

    Because of steam loss in transmission and during use, new water must be added from the reservoir located behind the plant. Each year, 67 million gallons of purified, softened water are added to the system -- enough water to fill 1,340 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

    A visit to the Steam Plant begins inside the operations building just south of the five-story-high Steam Plant. On the message board in the building's outer office is a notation that is now part of Steam Plant history: "1/18/94 8:10 a.m. 330,000 pounds per hour, 21 degrees below zero."

    "That was the most steam that people here can remember the plant generating," Palmer said. "Everyone on campus was turning up the radiators. The wind was blowing, and that made the demand greater."

    During cold winter weather, the plant produces a maximum of 300,000 pounds of steam per hour, or more than 7 million pounds per day. In the summer, the need drops to an average of 90,000 pounds per hour, or 2 million pounds per day.

    On a typical summer day, three of the 35-foot-tall boilers sit idle as workers clean them and install new equipment for the coming academic year. "Our busiest time is from April to October when we get the equipment ready," Palmer said.

    Computer screens in front of the boilers display vital information about the operation of the boilers and the fuel being burned. The computers also run the system -- which until 1991 was controlled by manual switches -- allowing the plant to use fuel more efficiently. The computers automatically regulate the amount of air and fuel going to the boilers to keep them running at an optimally efficient combustion rate.

    Despite the reliability of the equipment, further safeguards are also included to leave no room for error. The computers are powered by batteries so that power interruptions do not cause problems. The computer system is actually a double one, so if trouble develops with one set of hardware, the second set automatically takes over.

    Other redundancies are built into the plant's operation. Boilers are equipped to run with either fuel oil or natural gas, the water-softener system is built with a backup system, and backup equipment is in place for pumps throughout the plant.

    High above the four boilers is a remnant of the early days of the Steam Plant -- a 20-foot-deep coal bin that once held 5,000 tons of coal. The bin remains because there's no easy way to get it out, Palmer explained.

    Built in the late 1920s, the plant was renovated in 1970 to use cleaner-burning natural gas and fuel oil. In the days before renovation, Palmer said, a spur line from the Illinois Central brought hoppers full of coal into the plant. Besides being dirty, the coal was also difficult to use.

    "When it would rain on the coal and freeze, we had problems getting it out of the hopper cars," said Lee Mullins, Supervisor at the Steam Plant and an employee there since 1962. "We would have to get picks and break it apart so that we could get it to the boiler furnaces."

    Along the walls of the Steam Plant are new windows, open on a warm summer morning but also useful during the winter when demand for air causes its own special problems. Air pressure drops dramatically in the building as the oxygen is pulled out of the air to keep the furnaces going.

    "You could feel it last winter when you came in here. It was hard to open the doors sometimes because the air pressure outside was so much greater than that inside," Palmer said.

    In the basement of the Steam Plant is another world of pipes and water. In one large room is the water-softening system that purifies tap water so its traces of metals and other impurities do not become residue in boiler tubes. The basement also houses the machine shop, where pipes and other equipment are built or repaired as needed.

    In a corner of the basement is a door leading to the main tunnel. Even at the entrance the heat is oppressive.

    "You get used to the temperatures after a while," said O'Rourke, as he ducked into the narrow chamber for another anonymous trek through the steamy underground.

    -- William Harms