The stress of the work performed in the manholes limits each man to a maximum of 15 minutes below ground, a timetable that is easy for the crew members to try to ignore.
“The thing is when you are down there and it’s hot, you just want to get the job done. So guys will try to stay past their limit, so we make sure we get them out,” said Del Kingsland, steam distribution supervisor. “And once they are out, they stay out for 45 minutes.”
Every other week of the year these boilers produce 100 pounds of pressure, but this week the gauges all read "zero."
That safety policy contributes to the biggest frustration for the men on the Steam Team, the misperception by some that they don’t work hard.
“People see a bunch of guys standing around a manhole and they wonder why it takes so many people to do a job. They don’t realize that those men are required to be out of the hole for 45 minutes after being down in it. And while they are out, they are watching the crew that’s in the hole and making sure that they are safe,” said Kingsland.
Safety is of major importance to ECU facilities services. Apart from strict adherence to amount of time workers can be down in manholes, cool air is pumped into the holes while the crews are working, and the workers are kept well-hydrated. Inside the steam tunnels, which can be even hotter than the manholes, worker safety is an even greater concern. Workers wear protective suits along with respirators and face shields, and the air is tested to make sure there are adequate levels of oxygen before the workers are allowed to enter.
“The EH and S (Office of Environmental Health and Safety) here are extremely good to work for,” said Kingsland. “Before my guys go back in the holes in the beginning of the year they have to be fit tested and go through confined space training. Before shutdown, the EH and S sets everything up and makes sure everyone is trained and ready to go.”
A giant plume of steam is released from the Facilities Services Steam Plant as the boilers are taken off line.
In an age when green is gold, steam energy can boast a favorable record of efficiency, especially on the scale required by ECU.
“Steam carries a tremendous amount of energy that can be easily and widely distributed,” said Rick Williams, PhD, assistant professor of engineering at ECU.
Based on the physical properties of steam and steam systems, Williams estimates that the efficiency of steam to be around 80 percent, an estimation that is confirmed by the boiler operators.
“We’re pretty efficient here,” said Thorne. “According to the state [boiler] inspectors we’re one of the best in the UNC system.”
That efficiency is helped by the preventative maintenance done during the annual shutdown, and increased efficiency means lower operating costs for the university.
“Using steam as a space-heating medium in a facility as large as ECU is much more economical than [alternatives like] electricity,” said Robert Newell, steam operations manager for ECU. “Also, steam is used for domestic water heating, building terminal reheat AC systems, humidification, and by various entities on campus as needed for process purposes.”
Repairs inside the plant include replacing cast iron steam valves weighing more than 350 pounds each.
Perhaps no single resource is as important to the daily operation of ECU as is steam. Tremendous effort is given every day by dedicated professionals to ensure that students, faculty, and staff are able to comfortably continue their academic and administrative pursuits. Although the work of the Steam Team largely goes unnoticed, Kingsland and crew know the importance of the work they do, and don’t have a problem working behind the scenes.
“It’s a vital operation for the university. When we go down, people notice it real quick,” he said. “We’re out of sight, out of mind, which is okay with us. We’re happy like that.”
Editor’s Note: East Carolina University would like to extend heartfelt condolences to the family of Duke University master steam fitter, Rayford “Wiley” Cofer. Mr. Cofer died tragically in a steam-related accident on Wednesday, May 14, 2008, while working in a building on the university’s Durham, North Carolina, campus.