A Dirty, Dangerous, and Necessary Job

Annual week-long steam plant shutdown provides opportunity for maintenance and repairs

Pipes running along the steam tunnels

Pipes for steam and chilled water as well as high voltage electrical cables line the steam tunnels. Temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees in some areas.

Every summer, like clockwork, the message from Associate Vice Chancellor, Facilities and Plant Administration Mike Miller appears in campus email boxes across the University of California, Riverside.

Irineo “Iris” Martinez uses a wrench to install a valve that will allow water to be returned to the Steam Plant.

“ANNUAL STEAM SHUT DOWN,” it reads in ominous all-caps, linking to a flyer with details on the week long period that the campus’ steam boiler plant and distribution system will be down for maintenance.

Truth be told, without the message, the shutdown might go completely unnoticed by most UCR employees. But for the Physical Plant crews responsible for the upkeep of the campus steam plant and distribution system, it is the most important time of the year as it allows them to do work that would be too dangerous or physically impossible to do when the system is online.

“This one week period is when our guys really earn their money,” said Chris Flanders, climate control supervisor for Physical Plant and the supervisor for the team of twelve men who will each spend about 40 hours working on the pipes that run along the more than three-miles of service tunnels under the campus. “If we do our job well, you probably won’t notice it.”

UC Riverside has an extensive, and complicated, system of pipes that conduct high-pressure steam and chilled water through the service tunnels to various buildings across the campus. The closed systems are primarily used to provide heating and cooling throughout campus buildings, with the steam system also being responsible for heating water for bathrooms, showers and laundry services. But more significantly for researchers in labs across campus, the system provides the steam necessary for the sterilization of tools and equipment and for controlling humidity. This can make the shutdown a major inconvenience and is one of the reasons that Miller and the Physical Plant crews go out of their way to make sure that everyone on campus is aware of the annual shutdown.

walkway in steam plant

Orlando Caalim walks along one of the labyrinthine passageways above the boilers in the plant.

The steam is generated by four natural gas-fired boilers in the steam plant, located near Olmstead Hall and the UCR Library. Water from the city of Riverside is pumped into water softeners, then is heated to about 330 degrees in the boilers. The steam is then sent into the system at approximately 90 PSI. As the steam loses its heat and turns back into a liquid, it is then pumped back through a series of condensate lines to the plant, where the process begins again. During the summer the system produces around 25,000 pounds of steam per hour and peaks in the winter at nearly 65,000 pounds per hour.

As a closed system, the water is treated to adjust the PH and chemicals are added as necessary to help keep the pipes in the system in tip-top condition. It has a recovery rate of about 90%.

It’s a simple enough premise, on paper. But it is anything but simple in reality. First of all, high-pressure steam is a dangerous medium to work with.

“High pressure steam is invisible and it can give you third degree burns,” Flanders said. “If it is released through a small hole at high pressure, it can cut through the skin. It’s something we take very seriously.”

Also, with the steam under such intense pressure, there is the possibility of a failure that could result in an explosion. “This is why this maintenance on steam traps and pressure regulators is so important. But our record for safety with this system is excellent and we really haven’t had any major problems like that,” he said.

Frank Porter

Frank Porter shows the new shutoff valve.

Frank Porter, a 28-year-employee of UCR who has served on the HVAC crew for the last 11 years, spent “between 80 and 120 hours” in the distribution tunnels during the year, inspecting systems, planning the work schedule and determining what parts will be needed. Called “The King of Steam” by Flanders, Porter probably knows the system better than anyone on campus but is the first to admit that he doesn’t know everything.

“It’s such a large system that it takes more than one person’s knowledge,” Porter said. “I can’t know it all, so I depend on the other guys in the crew. And you certainly find surprises when you take things apart. You don’t always know what you are going to get until you unbolt the devices.”

Porter and the HVAC crews perform inspections and basic maintenance on the system year-round. They search for leaks and examine fittings, valves, expansion joints and steam traps. The traps remove liquid water from the system to prevent steam hammering, a noisy, violent rattling of the pipes which results from a sudden increase in pressure when steam instantly boils condensed water. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the devices have been added to the system over the years.

“A certain amount of hammering is normal. In a large steam system it is practically unavoidable,” Porter said. “But in extreme cases it can cause damage to the pipes.”

bellows-type expansion joint.

An older bellows-style expansion joint. The numbers written on the insulation on the right side of the photo denote the amount of expansion the pipe experiences when the steam system is on.

The expansion joints are also critical, as the heat from the steam system cause the pipes themselves to expand. The joints are placed every 100 feet or so throughout the system and prevent the expansion from causing failures in the pipes.

For the 2012 maintenance period the HVAC crew had a list of 50 tasks that could only be done during the seven-day shutdown that began June 18. Weeks of preparation and planning is done to ensure that the work can be completed on schedule.

On this day, Porter and Iris Martinez were working inside a vault on the lawn near the Bell Tower installing a new “full-ported” valve that will eventually connect with the condensate return line and improve the efficiency of the system. Earlier in the week they had replaced an antiquated expansion joint with a new custom joint as well as an isolation valve that will allow part of the system to be shutoff in an emergency.

installing insulation

Darren McManus (left) and Danny Gonzalez finish up on the installation of the new steam metering system by covering it with insulation.

The latter job is part of the continuing efforts to improve the safety and reliability of the system by retrofitting it with new equipment. When it was constructed in the mid-1950’s, the system had few isolation or shutoff valves, meaning that if a failure did take place, the entire campus system would have to be shut down.

There are also efforts being made to increase the campus’ energy efficiency. Nearby, in a tunnel near Olmstead Hall, Darren McManus and Danny Gonzalez were installing a new metering system that will track the amount of steam being used by the building.

“The more you are aware of the amount of utilities that you are using, the easier it can be to figure out a better way to run the campus more efficiently,” Porter said.

Meanwhile, at the Steam Plant, Orlando Caalim, Jr.’s 10-man staff is doing their own work on the four boilers that create the steam and cleaning out a year’s worth of mud and other accumulations from the drainage system

working on a boiler

Earl Nolan works on one of the boilers in the Steam Plant during the shutdown.

Caalim has been the plant operations manager for nearly nine years following 3.5 years on an HVAC crew and a 24-year-career running steam plants on U.S. Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. His crew staffs the boilers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but for this week it is an all-hands-on-deck event. The project is the culmination of a year’s worth of planning.

“It is a year-long process, starting immediately when the system goes back online,” Caalim said. “About four months before the actual shutdown, the team puts together their list of jobs.”

One of the jobs, and perhaps the messiest, was being done by the team of Nils Burkland and James Gibson, who were mounting pumps on a drainage area next to the massive boilers. “Every year we go down there and clean out the debris – the mud kind of builds up,” Burkland said. “It’s definitely a dirty job. We’d make Mike Rowe (host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs) cry.”

a bucket of muck

Some of the mud and muck that is cleaned out of the drainage channels in the Steam Plant during the annual shutdown.

The working conditions in the tunnels can be challenging at best; they are narrow, cramped, dirty and full of potentially dangerous high-voltage wires, pressurized pipes that can be as hot as 330 degrees and metal objects at head level. On hot days, some areas reach temperatures as high as 120 degrees. It’s not the kind of place that your average person would want to spend much time. And yet, the crews have found evidence of interlopers.

“We know people have come down here from the graffiti that we find.” Flanders said. “There are probably some urban legends about the tunnels, but going down there is no joke. There are definite hazards to life and limb down there. Tourists who go down there don’t understand that it goes beyond being in a system with high pressure and high voltage. They don’t know that a steam leak can displace all the oxygen in a room in a matter of seconds.”

Cage area

A member of the HVAC crew prepares an area of the tunnels for removal of insulation that contains asbestos. Asbestos is a carcinogen and a great deal of care is taken in its removal.

“If the lights go off down there, you’ll be stuck down there and you won’t be able to find your way back again,” he added. “There are plenty of obstructions, dead-ends, places where you can bang your head, get burned, get electrocuted. It is a very hazardous place. It’s not something you want to just check out for fun.”

But Flanders couldn’t speak highly enough about the men who do go down there on a regular basis, and said that they appreciate the support they receive from the campus community.

“These guys really are the unsung heroes. The amount of dedication to keeping the campus operating, keeping research going, it really is impressive when you see it every day,” he said. “We get nothing but thanks and understanding from all the people out there. We know we are appreciated, and we are happy to do it for them. When we do our job right, we’re invisible and that is OK with us.”

Physical Plant HVAC and Central Plant Crews

The Plant and HVAC crews pose during their lunch break. Back row, from left: Bill Clark, Ken Grombacher, Brian Sundstrom, Sean Summerill, Kenya McAllister, Becky Casem, Frank Porter, Chris Duwel, Ron Pendelton, Nils Burkland, and Dwight Green. Front row: Earl Nolen, Danny Gonzales, Chito Espiritu, Orlando Caalim, Darren McManus, Steve Benart, Irineo Martinez, James Gibson, Dante Lontok, Pat Simone, and Chris Flanders. Not pictured is Brian Pounders.

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