Facilities (Campus Spaces)

The Boiler Room Is the Classroom



Students and professors rarely give a thought to the machinery and systems that run their campus — unless something goes wrong and they end up sweating or shivering. But college and university physical plants could serve as more than unseen controllers of the classroom environment; they could be the classroom.

Facilities leaders faced with curtailing rising costs and meeting sustainability targets while keeping building occupants comfortable and maintaining climate control for labs and other sensitive spaces need increasingly sophisticated systems to achieve their goals. These systems justify themselves based on hard-dollar returns on investment. But looking at them only through that lens misses a significant opportunity to contribute to the institution’s educational mission.

Campus physical plants that have become “Internets of things” — requiring cloud-based management, machine learning and visualization tools — could be living labs for students. Mechanical engineering students could explore the plant with managers and engineers to see how a cutting-edge HVAC system works, for example, and visualization tools could bring the plant into the classroom.

The Optimized HVAC Lab

What will students see when they look inside an advanced campus HVAC system?

At Baylor University in Texas, they’ll see a solution to the problem posed by mixed-equipment systems — a common situation. Baylor’s chiller plant comprises eight chillers of different sizes and ages, which presents a hydraulics challenge: how do you properly distribute the total flow through the chillers when each of them has a different pressure drop? The chilled water will naturally go through the chiller with the lowest pressure drop, and far less flow will go through the chiller with the highest pressure drop. Students might think you’d use the modulating isolation valve on the chillers to balance the flow, but with eight chillers you have 256 possible run combinations, so fixed-valve positions for balancing flow won’t work. The answer was to develop an algorithm that dynamically adjusts valve positions so that the system is balanced under any combination of chillers and flow. The plant saved 3.55 million kilowatt-hours and 5.26 million pounds of CO2 within the first year of its optimization.

Another university we work with could walk students through the same challenge doubled, plus the extra problem of connecting to cloud-based optimization software under a strict security regime. The tech-focused university has two plants — one with six chillers and the other with seven — and requires that its control system remain completely isolated from the Internet. Our engineering team had to figure out how to pass data from the plant to off-site management servers without compromising the plant control system’s network security. The solution was to use data loggers that isolate network traffic on one side from network traffic on the other. The data loggers contain registers that the control system can write values to, and the university’s servers read that data. Data can be written to the data loggers only from the control system network, and data can be read from the data loggers only from the network on which the servers reside. The off-site servers then pull the data from the network into cloud architecture. Expected savings from the plant’s optimization are 17.2 million kWh and 31.5 million pounds of CO2.

Newer plants have teaching potential as well. The University of Maryland’s Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) shows how a five-year-old plant with inflexible climate requirements can run more efficiently with the right strategy and technology. James Johnson, the university’s director of facilities and lab services, converted IBBR to an all-variable flow plant and then added an optimization and control layer. From the variable speed drives and sensors installed on chillers, pumps, valves and tower fans, the software collects a tremendous amount of data about the plant equipment, including water flow, electrical power consumption, load conditions and more. It compares the data to control algorithms, assesses plant conditions in real time, and then automatically changes pump and fan speeds using chilled water temperature, equipment staging and other operational changes to maximize efficiency. The plant now runs 27 to 37 percent more efficiently.



Real-World Experience for Future Engineers

Now is the perfect time for colleges and universities to turn their HVAC plants into living labs. Recent technology advances enable a real leap forward in efficiency, and many aging campus systems are overdue for replacement or upgrade. As energy optimization pioneer Tom Hartman observed last year in a blog post after the International District Energy Association Campus Energy Summit, campus planners have put off dealing with outdated steam distribution systems for decades, and they are now realizing it doesn’t make sense to keep sinking money into shoring up obsolete technology. Replacement systems will incorporate efficient processes like thermal transfer (the use of heat rejected from chilled water production to produce hot water) and thermal storage. They’ll also use an optimization platform as a central nervous system that continuously monitors the system and adjusts equipment operations to keep it performing efficiently over time.

Students will want to look inside all those elements. I’ve seen firsthand that students crave a hands-on experience with the latest technologies. At the Institute for Sustainability and Engineering at Northwestern University, my alma mater, I’m teaching an entrepreneurship class with two other clean-tech executives. It’s clear that students need to understand real-world applications and how to commercialize solutions. Part of our mission is to educate and innovate, and universities are where technology innovation happens. We will gladly have engineers work with students on-site at our installations.

Schools that view their HVAC plants as part of the educational experience can engage their students with the next generation of building technology in a way that gives them the insights needed to develop ever simpler, more powerful and more cost-effective building systems. What’s a bigger ROI than that?

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Bert Valdman is president and CEO of Optimum Energy, a Seattle-based software and engineering firm that optimizes HVAC systems. He was senior vice president of strategy at Edison International and chief operating officer of Puget Sound Energy. Follow his company on Twitter @TrueOptimize.