Steam plant continues to defy its age as WCU seeks funding for upgrade

Terry Riouff, operations manager at WCU’s steam plant, takes a break during his work to rebuild part of the firewall inside one of the facility’s three old boilers.

A visitor taking a tour of Western Carolina University’s steam plant gets the sensation of moving through a dusty old warehouse full of pipes – not necessarily a surprise because the structure that houses WCU’s steam-producing operation was built in the late 1920s.

On the coldest of winter nights, when the plant’s three old boilers and three relatively new temporary boilers are literally going full-steam, trying to keep up with the university community’s demand for hot water and heat, the little building on Central Drive vibrates so much that plaster falls off the walls.

Terry Riouff, operations manager at the plant, recalls one particular single-digit night several years ago when one of the older boilers suddenly shut down. Alarms on the control panel went off and pressure in the interconnected piping system dropped. Riouff was forced to close the main steam line serving campus for a while to get the pressure back up. Fortunately, the problem was resolved and normal operations resumed in an hour and a half. “It was pretty hairy for a while,” he said. “That was the closest I’ve come to losing it.”

You’ll have to forgive Riouff and the other eight WCU staff members who keep the steam plant running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for speaking in dramatic terms about its operation. As Lee Smith, director of operations and maintenance for WCU’s Department of Facilities Management, describes it, working at the facility involves “90 percent watching and listening, and 10 percent sheer terror.”

Obtaining funding to replace or renovate the steam plant is WCU’s top capital priority as state legislators develop North Carolina’s biennial budget. When a boiler that was installed in 1951 suddenly failed in the winter of 2016, the university spent $2 million to replace it with the three temporary boilers with lower steam production capacity, but WCU officials are now seeking an additional $33.4 million for a complete upgrade. The proposed budget includes $750,000 for the 2017-18 fiscal year to design the replacement facility.

Heating water to create steam for the purpose of getting things done might seem like ancient technology associated with old-timey locomotives and steamboats, but steam plants are still in vogue – so much so that one of WCU’s sister schools in the University of North Carolina system recently constructed a new steam plant to serve its millennial campus, Smith said. WCU’s steam plant staff mostly uses natural gas to fire the burners in each boiler, with tanks of oil available as a back-up fuel source. When the boilers are up and running, water running through pipes in each unit’s 400-degree “firebox” is heated to steam, which then flows through 5 miles of pipes to serve about two-thirds of the university’s more than 3 million square feet of indoor space. Instead of being connected to the steam plant, some university structures have their own small boilers, heat pumps or geothermal systems.

Mark Haskett, director of photography in WCU’s Office of Communications and Public Relations, disappears into the “torpedo chute” during his quest to take photos inside a steam plant boiler.

Buildings connected to the steam plant have heat exchangers that allow the transfer of heat from the steam lines to the building’s water lines, allowing hot water to flow from the faucets. To create heat for those buildings, the steam flows through coils and air is warmed as it is blown through the coils by electric motors. After the steam does its job in those buildings, the liquid condensate flows back to the steam plant to be re-used in the system repeatedly.

The expected lifespan for WCU’s three older boilers is about 30 years, but two of them date back to the late 1960s, and the third boiler was put into operation in 1973. “They’ve made it beyond 30 years, but the only reason they have is because of the work the staff does to maintain them,” Smith said. “Parts are only available if you buy them out of an old boiler graveyard, but a lot of them you can’t find.” Several years ago, the flame sensor on one old boiler broke and Riouff used baling wire to keep it in place and the boiler operating for months.

Whenever serious problems arise with the steam plant or its steam distribution system, to avoid causing widespread inconvenience for the WCU community at the busiest times of the year, a temporary solution is contrived so that permanent repairs can happen during the university’s annual “steam plant shutdown” that occurs just after the May commencements, Smith said. Staff members are literally turning valves to shut down the plant as the final graduates file off the commencement stage. The plant itself ceases operation for four days, but sections of campus are offline for longer periods for work to be done on the piping system, he said.

It is during that shutdown when staff members undertake their annual cleaning of the three older boilers, which involves draining water lines and entering each one’s firebox to clean soot off those lines and to repair and seal the “firewall,” a barrier of fire-proof bricks that supports the burner. The process is a claustrophobic’s nightmare, with staff members gaining entry into the firebox through a 12-inch by 16-inch chamber about 3 feet long – referred to as the “torpedo chute.” They place the upper halves of their bodies in the chute, and because arm movement is restrained in the tight space, have to get a shove of momentum on the feet from their fellow workers to make it inside.

Starting next year, the three newer boiler fireboxes also will need an annual cleaning, Smith said.

Among the advantages of constructing a new steam plant at WCU would be improved energy efficiency and reliability, plus increased generating capacity to serve campus growth, Smith said. In terms of efficiency, the old boilers run in the 50 percent range, when energy input and output are compared. New boilers have efficiency in the 80 percent range, he said.

Besides the aged boilers and dilapidated building, another worry at the steam plant is the water feed pump system, which was installed in 1966. “The staff tears that thing apart and works on it every year,” Smith said. “Every year, it gets a little more corroded.”