The Steam Team

For thousands of years, humankind has harnessed the power of steam. The ancient Greeks first recognized steam as an energy source in the first century. Advances in steam technology proved instrumental in bringing about the industrial revolution and modern transportation.

Today, East Carolina University relies on steam for the daily operation of nearly every building on campus. Steam provides heat to more than 3.5 million square feet of interior spaces, provides hot water for showers and laundry services, powers steam kettles used for cooking in the dining halls, maintains humidity in the Minges Coliseum, and heats swimming pools at the Student Recreation Center.

With so much importance placed on steam energy, ECU takes great measures to ensure that the steam system works properly, including completely shutting down the entire system for one week each May to allow for repair and annual maintenance. This year, the shutdown is taking place from Sunday, May 11, to Saturday, May 19.

A member of the Steam Team prepares to work inside a manhole where extreme temperatures require extra safety precautions.

“[The shutdown] is part of our preventative maintenance program,” said Tony Yamada, associate director of facilities services. “We don’t wait for things to fail; we replace them before they fail.”

The week-long shutdown is the only break the system gets all year. Normally the massive boilers, which create the steam, run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The 8,000-square-foot Facilities Services Steam Plant is the heart of ECU’s mechanical operations. Built in 1967 with just one 45,000-pound boiler, it has undergone two expansions over the past 40 years to reach its present size. In 1975, two 75,000-pound boilers were added, and in 2001, ECU’s rapid growth necessitated a third. Underground distribution lines connect the plant to Main Campus, with approximately 10 miles of pipe employed to provide steam to buildings.

In the winter, boilers are run in tandem to create the 110,000 pounds of steam needed for Main Campus. In the summer only the smaller boiler is needed to meet the diminished demands of the summer schedule. Running the boilers below capacity extends the life of the boilers, reduces maintenances costs, and allows the boilers to use less fuel. It also reduces the potential for accidents.

With only seven days to inspect and repair the thousands of valves and other pieces of hardware along the miles of underground pipes, a dedicated team of experienced workers is crucial. Facilities crews prepare all year for this one opportunity to let off some serious steam.

Work on the steam system comprises two parts: boiler maintenance and repair, and distribution line maintenance and repair. ECU employs six boiler operators and five distribution line mechanics, a combined crew dubbed the “Steam Team.” During the week, the Steam Team works together to complete the incredible amount of work, putting in as many as 80 hours per man.

“Everybody helps each other,” said Neal Thorne, steam plant supervisor. “Boiler operators help the mechanics, and the mechanics help us so we can get everything done.”

The obvious unavailability of steam during this time requires the work to be done during one of the slowest weeks on the calendar, the week after commencement and before the start of summer session.

While that week may be “slow” for faculty and students, it is the busiest week of the year for crews responsible for completing the 300 to 400 work orders typically filed during the shutdown.

“When we get done with [the shutdown], we are looking at a good thick novel of work orders,” said Thorne.

Inside the main steam generating plant, the litany of valves and traps are inspected and repaired. On campus, mechanic crews descend into steam tunnels and manholes underground where they often make repairs in extreme heat.

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