To the students who pass it every day on their way to class, the heating plant may well be just another piece of campus scenery, albeit an incongruously industrial one.
Its towering chimney isn’t for show—the white steam it emits hints at the complex operation inside that quietly and unceasingly works to keep campus running. This week, I got a rare glimpse of Bowdoin’s mechanical underbelly with a tour.
Walking through the front door, I get a quick grin and firm handshake from Jeff Tuttle, associate director of facilities. He introduces me to Charlie Blier, chief engineer and resident machine-whisperer.
Before I have the chance to ask, the pair launch into an eager explanation of what goes on in the building.
“My job is simple. I make steam.” Blier says.
Why? To keep Bowdoin warm and bright. An enormous boiler fitted with an array of gauges and consoles that maximize customizability (think of it as the boiler equivalent of Linux), heats water to the point of condensation. Ducts then channel the highly pressurized steam through a turbine, creating 300kw of electricity per day—enough to power 100 houses, said Blier.
The steam, newly-reduced from 120 to 30 psi, is then safe to be piped underground to the rest of campus. Each building’s heating system operates in one of two ways. If it relies on steam heat, the hot steam is simply pumped into the building’s pipes. In newer systems—like those found in the renovated freshmen dorms—the steam heats water, which flows throughout the building’s walls.
The new system in these buildings allows the occupants to adjust the temperature for each room, as opposed to the entire building as a whole.
Regardless, about 93 percent of the steam entering makes its way back into the boiler of the heating plant, and repeats the journey.
So if steam heats the campus, what does the boiler burn to heat it? The plant burned oil until 2009, when it switched to natural gas.
“I’m somewhat of an environmentalist,” said Blier. “We didn’t expect oil to go through the roof like it did. We recouped the costs of conversion in three months because of all the money we didn’t spend on oil.”
According to Tuttle, both financial and ethical concerns drive the staff to aggressively push for greater efficiency wherever and whenever possible. “Every decision here is made with cost-benefit analysis,” said Tuttle.
“We do everything in our power to save the College money,” Blier adds.
The results speak for themselves. When Blier started work at the plant 20 years ago, it spent $17,000 per year on a crucial chemical.
Now, it spends $1,700 for the same one. While comparable municipal heating plants operate at 40 percent efficiency, Bowdoin’s works at 88 percent.
The key to this effort lies in lots of data. Blier and Tuttle led me into an office that looks out over the floor of the plant. Three monitors display impressive flowcharts depicting figures relating to the steam flowing through the turbine and the boiler’s operations.
Two computers record these data points at half-second intervals, creating a coherent record that stretches back to the creation of the system in 1997, when Blier himself built the computers which, though slated for replacement soon, are still running strong.
Using this database, Blier and his assistant can spot any inefficiency, and the computer-mounted controls allow them to manually adjust every aspect of plant operations.
As a result of constant tweaking and re-tweaking, the heating plant appears to be an incredibly efficient operation. Hardly any preventable waste occurs at the plant, but future improvements won’t come easily.
“We’ve already picked all the low-lying fruit,” said Tuttle.
New technologies are key. Next month, for example, the staff will put in a wastewater capture system projected to reduce the campus’s wastewater output by about 80 percent.
Certain perks come with this success.
“It’s fun to visit Colby and talk to my counterpart there, and tell him all about what we’re doing here,” said Blier.
Tuttle laughs. “It’s because he loves to brag!”