The Boiler Room Is the Classroom

The Boiler Room Is the Classroom

April 25, 2017

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

By Bert Valdman

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.

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.

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.

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?

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