July 24, 2000
Volume 52, No. 38
Hot, Hot, HOT: A tour inside Emory's Central Steam Plant
By Eric Rangus
For the first 45 minutes of a 70-minute tour of Emory's Central Steam Plant, something was missing from plant supervisor Jody DiCarlo's brow.
In the middle of the afternoon of a 95-degree Atlanta day, surrounded by boilers and pipes-some pushing 300 degrees Fahrenheit-and a firebox heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, DiCarlo was perfectly comfortable in his blue Facilities Management polo with white t-shirt underneath.
"You just get used to it," he said.
Tucked behind Cappucino Joe's and Central Laundry, the work of the steam plant is often unnoticed. Even its smokestacks, which rise several stories, are barely visible from the footbridge over the railroad tracks. Make no mistake, though-the tons of twisted metal and intertwined parts is as essential a part of the University as the Woodruff Library or the business school.
"Nobody calls unless there's power outage, and then we're the first people they call," said Gene Grommett, a 30-year employee of Facilities Management.
Emory's Central Steam Plant shoots steam through a network of more than five miles of tunnels to power roughly 50 buildings across campus. They stretch to every corner of the University, from the North Decatur Building to Administration, to Egleston to the P.E. Center. While more than 50 boilers are scattered throughout campus, most are simply water heaters.
The steam plant's boilers are numbered 5 through 8 (1 through 4 were retired and removed long ago), but on a normal day no more than two are running at the same time (some frigid winter days necessitate running all four). In fact, just one is necessary in the summer when power demands are less.
DiCarlo came to Emory in 1993 after serving nine years in the Navy. In fact all six of the steam plant's technicians (DiCarlo, Frederick Blue, Dale Ogelsby, Frank Parker, Doug Richards and Steve Smith) served in the Navy and have an average of 20 years' experience working with steam equipment.
According to DiCarlo, roughly three-and-a-half years of training is necessary to become proficient in working with gas-powered steam equipment, like Emory's.
Two things about the steam plant's working conditions jump out immediately. The first is noise. The two new boilers, which date to the late 1980s, run at about 85 decibels (dB), making normal speech difficult to hear. The older boilers, built in the 1960s and early 1970s, roar at decibels that can reach 130. When they're rumbling, ear protection is a must. But they aren't used as much as the newer ones since they aren't as efficient.
The other, of course, is the heat. The temperature in the polisher room, for instance, consistently tops 100 degrees. The polishers, four large, interconnected blue tanks, remove impurities from the water during its transformation to steam. The heat is necessary to keep the water from cooling too much; that would mean more energy expended to reheat it and, therefore, less efficiency.
The heat from the boilers themselves can be felt from a foot away (since heat rises, the catwalk above is particularly scorching), and peeking into the flame of the firebox (the large, insulated centerpiece of the plant that heats the water) is like staring into the blue flame of a jet engine.
The combination of heat and the light smell of natural gas gives off the impression that the entire place will blow in 10 seconds.
The inner workings of the plant are intricate, and some of the statistics involved in the operation of the steam plant are truly mind-boggling. The box at right outlines just a few.