Deep within a maze of steam pipes and shiny valves, and woven with ambiguous terms like “steam economizer” and “pneumatic control,” lay unseen sources of energy bringing welcome warmth or a breath of cool relief to campus. They are the chillers and boilers of Illinois State, an unlikely ally in the pursuit of sustainability.


Make it Hot

“Not many people think about the temperature of a room, unless it is uncomfortable,” said Assistant Director of the Heating Plant Chris Homan. “Our main goal is to make people as comfortable as we can so they can learn and teach and study. We want to do all that without wasting energy.” Homan and his team have worked for nearly a decade to improve efficiencies in the four, behemoth boilers creating heat on campus.

In his office, Homan views screens with maps showing a labyrinth of pipes and color-coded lines along with flickering numbers that provide insight into the myriad of ways he and his team work to make the boilers on campus more efficient.

“There are a lot of different things we can do, like using a fan to bring in outside air or adjusting the speed drive,” said Homan, pointing to the automated system that can display steam temperatures, carbon dioxide outputs, and fan speeds. Much of Illinois State’s equipment is automated, yet the system is only efficient because it can be manipulated by a team of skilled workers, noted Homan.

“The Heating Plant staff does a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning of the system,” said Heating Plant Chief Engineer Daniel Kane. “Automation and networking are great because we can look past the general automation of the machines, and into ways to optimize the system.”

For the past decade, Homan and Kane have worked to reduce units of heat energy (therms) used on campus—from making sure steam heat does not escape into the atmosphere to understanding optimal mixes of fresh and heated air. Their efforts have resulted in a drop of 40,000 therms a month, or enough to heat about 400 homes. The cost of that energy can run from 50 cents to 80 cents a therm, meaning they are avoiding costs of as much as $32,000 a month.


Keep it Cool

Since the 1960s, chilling a building at Illinois State meant a separate unit for each building. “When you walked around the Quad, you could hear each individual air conditioner working. You would reach Fell Hall and hear Fell’s air conditioner. Then reach McCormick, and hear McCormick’s unit. It would be loud-quiet-loud-quiet,” said Director of the Office of Energy Management Ron Kelley, who spearheaded the long-term project of reducing building chiller units on campus. “Not only was it loud, it was a waste.”

As part of an energy infrastructure master plan, Kelley began to develop multiple satellite “chiller” plants. The plants moved forward the phasing out of individual units in favor of creating a system of six “chiller” loops, which serve all of campus by dispersing chilled water in pipes. “Take the chiller at Redbird Arena,” said Kelley. “It serves all of west campus. Almost all of the chilled water for that area comes from one chiller plant. And we are only producing enough chilled water to satisfy the needs of those buildings at that time. We don’t have seven individual building units going at once and wasting energy.”

Tunnels already existed for heating, so connecting the six chiller plants—at Beaufort Street, Redbird Arena, South Campus, the Heating Plant, the Science Lab Building, and Bone Student Center—has caused little disruption over the 15-year project. “Infrastructure-wise, we have avoided costs for a lot of capital by having a few chill-water plants rather than install new chillers in each building. Plus it is a lot more efficient,” said Kelley.

Yet, no matter how many therms are reduced or how quiet the campus becomes as the last building air conditioning units are dismantled, Kelley knows chillers and boilers will never be seen as the sexy side of sustainability. “We have been fortunate to have University leaders who understand that non-sexy projects are sometimes the most valuable,” said Kelley, who knows talking about steam tunnels can be less exciting than wind turbines and solar power panels. “Sometimes the projects that are the prettiest in terms of dollars and cents are the ones we rarely see.”