As students write papers in the wee hours of the morning, snooze their alarm for an 8 a.m. class, labor over crossword puzzles at lunch, go for an afternoon run, or dance the night away in a dimly lit basement, the Bowdoin Heating Plant’s six engineers work tirelessly to keep the College running.
“We’re here on Christmas. We’re here on Thanksgiving,” said Charles Blier, Engineer in Charge. The plant is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The engineers work one of two 12 hour shifts, starting or ending at 7 a.m. The night shift is done solo.
Charles Blier has been working at Bowdoin’s heating plant for 22 years. “Just about everything has changed here since I started,” he recalled. “In the old days, everything was run by a switch and button. Now, we use all these digital screens.”
Many of the changes in the plant have stemmed from the College’s sustainability efforts. In the past decade, the plant has decreased its fossil fuel usage by 19 percent. Thanks to upgrades to the campus steam system, the condensate distribution system, the steam metering systems, improved campus insulation, and conversation of steam heating to hot water in campus buildings, Bowdoin is making strides in energy efficiency.
Though the engineers do rounds throughout the facility every hour, they spend most of their time looking out into the plant from the control room window, where they monitor the goings-on of the interior on four flatscreens.
Stepping out of the control room and into the plant is an intense sensory experience – a buzzing amalgamation of heat, noise, and color. Though the plant is sprawling and maze-like, the engineers are familiar with every nook and cranny, every pipe and knob, every tank and tool.
After 22 years on the job, Blier is a master of this maze. “It’s just a standard color scheme.” He pointed at various knobs and tanks as he gave a quick rundown: “Railings are always painted yellow, so the staff knows when they’re approaching the edge. Orange for oil, yellow for gas, that’s always blue, that’s always green.”
“Everything’s hot, everything’s high up. You have to go by the manual, even if it’s a little slower,” explained Blier, describing the plant’s approach to safety. “The day you think you know everything is the day you’re gonna get yourself killed.”
The engineers stay on the premises of the plant for the entirety of their 12 hour shifts. They eat their meals inside the control room, making use of a staff refrigerator and a soda machine. “Domino’s is your friend,” Morton said, inciting nods and grins of agreement from his coworkers.
Morton often uses the plant’s welding shop to do repairs and manufacturing for various campus departments – most often for dining and athletics. “We fix a lot of goalposts. We make a lot of brackets for the high jump posts, so they can adjust the height.” Manufacturing is Morton’s favorite part of the job – besides getting paid every two weeks, of course. “It’s cool to build stuff, to start with nothing and end up with something useful.”
Morton and Blier both appreciate the variety of tasks the job involves. “If all you did was just the rounds, just adding oil to the turbine and checking the bearings, you would be pretty bored pretty quick,” Blier said.
Generally, the engineers have minimal interaction with staff and students. “Nobody really knows we exist. Until something’s shutting down – then everybody is talking to us,” said Morton.