Heating plant proves to be campus hotspot

Many Ephs would say that President Schapiro or Dean Merrill holds the most important job on campus. Yet without seven crucial members of the Williams staff, classes, sports and residential life would come to a freezing halt – literally. Every year from November to March, heating plant supervisor Tom Miller and his hardworking team of engineers are all that stand between the warm, cozy atmosphere of the College’s dorms and the unforgiving blast of the Williamstown winter.

“This time of year, if we weren’t here, they’d miss us,” Miller said.

While the heating plant’s redbrick smokestack is a familiar sight to most students and staff, few have laid eyes on the facility’s interior. On the inside, the College heating plant feels like a sauna and looks like a factory with a NASA mission control room plopped in the middle. Amidst a jungle of wires, pipes, tanks and ladders, the College’s colossal boilers drone like jet engines, turning thousands of gallons of water into steam. “They do have personalities,” said heating plant operator Ed Durby.

The plant is staffed by two or three engineers at a time, working in three different eight-hour shifts. Miller, Durby and their colleagues spend most of their time in the plant’s office-like control center, only getting up periodically to clean equipment and repair leaks.

“Even if you’re reading the paper, your mind is still on this,” Durby said as he gestured to the control console whose four computer screens were filled with bar graphs and gauges. If something goes amiss, the computer activates a loud buzzer, similar in pitch to a fire alarm. If there is a serious emergency, pressing a large red button on the wall shuts off the boiler.

Since 1987, the College has used its heating plant to generate electricity. Today, the plant generates roughly one-fifth of the College’s electricity supply through a process that shoots high-pressure, 600-degree steam through a turbine. Upon passing through the turbine, the steam is funneled into pipes several feet in diameter, which travel out to the campus through so-called “steam tunnels,” connecting 90 percent of the College’s buildings. The main steam tunnel running from the heating plant to Lasell is tall enough to walk in and contains electrical and fiber optic cables as well as steam pipes. Despite rumors about the purported dangers of steam tunnel spelunking, Miller says that virtually all of the pipes are quite well insulated and leaks are rare.

The College’s steam tunnels are steeped in lore. Alumni tell stories of walking halfway across campus through murky subterranean corridors, and popping up in far-flung dorms without ever stepping outside. According to Miller, one particularly spirited group of students crept through the tunnels to install purple light bulbs in every socket. It is now illegal for even Miller to enter the tunnels without a confined spaces permit.

After passing through heaters in the College’s classroom buildings and dorms, the steam returns as water to the heating plant, where it is used again. Over 90 percent of the water is recovered, a percentage that Miller and operators proudly assert is far higher than that of most other institutions. The rest of the water comes from the town’s municipal water supply.

Most of the water that is lost is used in combustion to help the boiler’s fuel burn more cleanly and efficiently. The plant’s smokestack emits a steady stream of unfiltered carbon dioxide and water vapor, with a trace of sulfur dioxide. Due to federal regulations, particulate matter is kept to a minimum, which is why the plant’s smoke’s plume is generally invisible or, on colder days, white.

During the coldest weeks of the year, tank trucks arrive daily to refill the College’s oil supply. Should the College ever find itself snowed in, there is a black 430,000-gallon petroleum tank behind the plant, holding enough oil to last over a month. Gas, on the other hand, comes directly from the town’s municipal gas line, which runs along Route 2.

The most recent boiler, installed in 2003, is capable of burning both oil and natural gas.

Gas is cleaner and produces less carbon dioxide, though it is often more expensive than natural gas. Nevertheless, the College has committed to burning more natural gas in order to reduce the College’s contribution to global climate change. As a result of high oil prices, as well as additional funding set aside for buying natural gas, the College is burning more natural gas this year than ever before.

The heating plant is currently responsible for half the College’s carbon dioxide emissions, but, according to utilities manger Don Clark, the heating plant’s carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced from 15,310 metric tons in 2006 to 13,914 metric tons in 2007. Stephanie Boyd, Acting Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, expects to see further reductions this year as well.

It’s no secret that the College has committed itself to going green by increasing recycling and decreasing energy consumption. Though the heating plant and its staffers are less directly in the spotlight, they play a critical role in keeping the campus green as well as warm.