A Symphony of Steam, Gas and Power

A Symphony of Steam, Gas and Power

By Daniel StolteUniversity Communications
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Thermal storage plant at the Central Refrigeration Building at North Mountain Avenue and East Helen Street. (Photo by Mark Marikos, Facilities Management)
Thermal storage plant at the Central Refrigeration Building at North Mountain Avenue and East Helen Street. (Photo by Mark Marikos, Facilities Management)
Chris Kopach and the UA's energy management systems were featured in the May issue of Building Operating Management magazine.
Chris Kopach and the UA's energy management systems were featured in the May issue of Building Operating Management magazine.

As our phones are getting smarter, so are our cars, our homes, and the UA campus. And for the moment, we are not referring to the bright crop of students and faculty about to converge on campus once the fall semester starts, but to a silent and, to most of us, all but invisible army of sensors, devices and software in charge of monitoring and controlling the lifelines of the University.

The UA not only is a formidable place for science, discovery, innovation and learning. The UA also is 11 million square feet of physical space, spread over 267 buildings, that need to be cooled, heated, ventilated, cleaned and maintained.

Together with his team of 600 employees, Assistant Vice President of Facilities Management Christopher Kopach is responsible for making sure every unit on campus receives the services it needs, while keeping utility costs as low as possible and using resources responsibly.

When he took over full responsibility of Facilities Management in 2010, there were about 800 meters installed all over campus, keeping track of water and energy consumption.

"We had two people who had their hands full just going around to check those meters," Kopach says. "Now it's all done remotely and software-based. If a meter has failed, we immediately know about it, and can dispatch a technician to that location and assess and repair the issue."

Similar to a home monitoring system controlling your air conditioning or heating at home while you're at work, Facilities Management uses metering software along with an active energy management program, or AEM. In a complex environment like the UA, where some buildings date from the middle of the last century while others were built around the latest and greatest in energy-efficient technology, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – which is why FM now employs computer experts and software engineers alongside custodians, plumbers and electricians.

"Our system allows us to see real-time data on each of the meters," Kopach says. "The benefit to the UA is we have accurate meter readings and have efficient energy usage." (The UA's use of mobile technology was featured in this Building Operating Management magazine article.)

Of course, just as with any system that generates large amounts of data, the two systems took some tweaking and getting used to, Kopach says, referring to the days when his team was drowning in data, much of it redundant, meaningless, or both.

"I like to say, 'If you can't measure it, you can't improve it,'" he says.

Kopach therefore created a team in charge of not only collecting data from the meters around campus, but also to make sense of it and separate the signals from the noise, a tall order when considering the amount of data coming in from two gas-turbine power plants, 22 chiller plants, 300 ice storage tanks and myriad other pieces of energy infrastructure feeding into the lifelines winding their ways across, inside and underneath campus.

At one time, the combined gas, power and water expenditures amounted to an annual utility budget of $34 million, according to Kopach, a number that has been brought down by $1 million to $2 million every year since, thanks to smarter technology, smarter protocols and smarter use of resources.  

On a regular basis, members of Kopach's team review all key performance indicators of the UA's utilities with regard to usage and dollars spent, a process that provides the basis for adjustments and improvements that over time result in large energy and cost savings.

"For example, when we looked at the entire 6.5 miles of steam lines inside our utility tunnels across campus, we determined that the insulation lining was old or coming off in many places, and we were losing that heat to the tunnel system," he says. "Not only that, but the escaping heat warmed the cold-water lines. So, we put 5,000 feet of insulation around those lines, and we saw a direct improvement on our natural gas usage. It's all about efficiency and driving down utility cost. Insulation has a direct correlation to savings."

In addition to providing long-term data, the active management systems use mathematical algorithms that allow members of Kopach's team to see where they need to make adjustments so all chillers are running at optimum capacity.

"We like to think of it like a symphony," Kopach says. "We have 22 chillers in three plants that are supplying chilled water to cool buildings throughout this campus. Some have older air handling systems, some have newer ones, and each one places different demands on the distribution system.

"Or let's say a malfunction occurred with the chillers at the UA Health Sciences. In that event, we could send water from our chillers on main campus through our closed loop system to guarantee uninterrupted service. AEM makes that possible."

As technology becomes more complex, it becomes more important to streamline data to ensure continuity. That, too, is a purpose of AEM.

"There are 30 different types of controls on campus, serviced by technicians who have a lot of knowledge of our heating, ventilation and air conditioning," says Kevin Williams, assistant director of IT for Facilities Management. "When someone retires, that knowledge could walk out the door. To avoid that, we need to have a system that can read and decipher the controls in one language, and our techs have to understand the software side of it, to be able to make adjustments through the software."

Routinely, Facilities Management is collaborating with building managers across campus, as well as faculty and staff, to look at all the data and ways to lower utility costs.

"We benchmark our system using a third-party company and compare it to other universities in the rest of the country as well as overseas, to see how do they do things, and what are the best practices out there," Kopach says.

Tracking large-scale energy trends is a big part of what Kopach's team does. As the price for electricity increases, and the price for natural gas goes down, his unit has shifted power generation on campus accordingly.

"We are producing one-third of our own electricity with co-generation turbines, essentially jet engines that run on natural gas," Williams said. "The waste heat they generate is used to produce steam, which we can feed into our heating, instead of using our separate system to make steam. It's much more efficient."

UA students from a variety of departments and programs play roles in keeping the UA campus up and running, in areas that include engineering, architecture, business and economy.

Each year, at least 40 groups of students from the College of Engineering tour the power plants as part of their coursework. Recently, following such a visit, one student sent a note to Kopach, saying, "I had a hard time wrapping my head around this stuff in class, but once I visited the plant and saw how the chillers and the turbines and the computers work together, the light bulb came on. Suddenly all fell into place and made sense."

"That student then ended up doing an internship with us," Kopach says. Students also are working in computer programming at Facilities Management.

These and other continued efforts toward more efficient and more effective utility usage have not gone unnoticed. APPA: Leadership in Educational Facilities – formerly known as the Association of Physical Plant Administrators – recognized UA Facilities Management with its highest award for excellence, a five-year award granted in 2013.

Kopach already has his eyes on the next.

"Nobody understands our internal systems better than our in-house staff," he says. "They take ownership of those systems, and they are the ones who keep everything up and running 24/7, 365 days a year. They are the unsung heroes in the background who show up on holidays and during the holiday break, rain or shine, and that is our strength. We have top-notch people here."  

Get your fix of campus eye candy by visiting the FM Grounds Services Instagram account.

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