Down in the Boiler Room

By Dan Wallace

Something as mundane as a campus boiler system can help colleges meet climate goals and offer hands-on research at the intersection of environmental studies and engineering …

For many institutions in New England, the 2020 deadline to hit objectives for the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments that once seemed far away are now right around the corner. These ambitious plans were entered into in 2007 with the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment—in some cases, by now-departed presidents—and many higher education institutions (HEIs) across the region find themselves a bit behind schedule and in search of ideas for how to catch up.

In our region, where temperatures range from below 0 to over 100 degrees, heating and cooling can present a major opportunity to improve sustainability stats of a campus. Overt changes such as improving windows come to mind, but recent advancements in boiler technology and strategies for working with the heat of the sun and the cool of the earth can provide powerful, if un-sexy, means of reducing emissions quickly.

Advances in biofuels

A major source of New England HEIs’ fuel usage goes to the boilers that heat their buildings. Switching to a sustainable, renewable fuel in the burner system means huge reductions in carbon emissions and lowers dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas. Most HEIs rule out this option because biofuels, such as wood chips or pellets, require a complete new boiler system and easily cost upwards of $10 million.

A new biofuel option has emerged in “liquid wood” or “bio-oil.” Liquid wood isn’t new to the market, but the technology to burn it efficiently and safely is. This liquid fuel, made from wood in a process called pyrolysis, behaves just like traditional fuel oils in the boiler, so existing boiler equipment can be retrofitted easily—for about one tenth the cost of converting to traditional biofuels. The fuel has existed for some time, but the technology to burn it has only recently been perfected.

Since the raw wood comes from tree farms, liquid wood fuel is a 100% renewable resource. It’s also extremely carbon-efficient because the planting of new trees (to replace those harvested to create the oil) offsets much of the carbon emissions. When Bates College in Maine switched its heating system to liquid wood ahead of last winter, its carbon footprint was reduced by 83% in a single year.

Replace boiler components

Boilers are incredibly durable. They often last decades—potentially even a century—without needing to be replaced. However, just because something isn’t broken, doesn’t mean it’s green. While many schools are still working to set up protocols to lower thermostats, they can also make use of technology that increases efficiency of the heating system automatically. For instance, boiler upgrades were part of how Bowdoin College reached its climate goal two years early.

The electrical efficiency of a boiler is determined by its ability to maintain an optimal ratio of air to fuel. Older burners set these ratios manually. Not only are they difficult to adjust, they slip over time. Upgrading the controller component of a boiler system is relatively inexpensive—most of the system can remain. With ratios dialed in by computer and maintained digitally, the sustainability gains can be huge. Installation costs can be as low as $5,000, and electrical usage can be reduced by as much as 75%.

Harness natural thermal energy

If your campus is climate-conscious, you’ve likely explored solar panels as a power source extensively, but there are other ways to capture the sun’s energy. Solar thermal walls are dark-colored metal plates that can be mounted on the southern side of buildings to capture the sun’s heat (even during the dead of winter) and pull warmed air into the building with fans. Heating fuel savings enable these fixtures to pay for themselves in one to eight years.

Controlling the temperature of your facility isn’t the only heating and cooling cost of a campus. Tremendous amounts of energy are expended changing the temperature of water. Geothermal wells use the Earth’s ambient temperature of about 55 degrees to give a head-start on heating water. While likely cost-prohibitive as a sustainability measure alone, campuses that may already be updating their water systems can look to make sustainability gains along the way, particularly rural campuses that rely on wells because they aren’t served by city water systems.

Merge environmental studies with engineering

The enthusiasm of students was a major driver for colleges and universities entering into climate leadership commitments in the last decade. In the years since 2007, “employability” has increasingly become a top issue on the minds of students and administrators. Campuses that connect these causes can both tap the intelligence and energy of their students while providing them with valuable workforce skills.

When updated with remote monitoring technology that tracks usage data, something as mundane as the campus boiler system can become a hands-on arena for research at the intersection of environmental studies and engineering. Colleges and universities in New England could follow the example of institutions like Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, where students get hands-on experience managing the campus’ sustainable living program, which includes sustainable heating and cooling elements. Several alumni have used skills developed in the program to enter the sustainability field or launch companies in the green energy space. At Mesalands Community College in New Mexico—which has a 1.5MW wind turbine that powers the campus and is maintained by instructors and students—graduates enter the workforce trained in wind turbine maintenance.

Rather than merely agitating for sustainability improvements on campus, institutions that create a collaborative environment for students to be part of the solutions give those students an edge as they enter the workforce. New England, where energy costs are high, winters are cold, and there’s widespread community support for climate initiatives, is an ideal place to train the next generation of building managers and engineers while preparing campuses for a sustainable future.

Dan Wallace is vice president of research and development at Preferred Utilities Manufacturing Corp.

Photo of boiler at Bates College courtesy of Preferred Utilities Manufacturing Corporation.

Related Posts:

Climate Denial and the Limits of Higher Education

Powering a Slow Recovery

Climate Controlled?

Linking Top-Down to Bottom-Up for Sustainability

After Five Warm and Stormy Years, Higher Ed Leaders Keep Commitment to Confront Climate Change

David Levy Comments on the Challenge of Climate Change (video)

NEJHE’s Coverage of the Environment


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