Even if you held a gun to his wife’s head, Rich Gardner says, she wouldn’t be able to tell you what exactly he does for a living.
At Cogen, the power plant tucked inconspicuously between the Science and Engineering Quadrangle and Strong Memorial Hospital, Gardner is the operations manager. His wife knows that much. It’s the technical side of his work that she’s generally clueless about — but so is pretty much everyone else.
That’s why a group of students gathered late last month for a tour of the plant, which serves much of UR, put on by Engineers for a Sustainable World. Gardner, acting as tour guide, admitted that the hour-long tour barely scratches the surface of what the plant does.
“You’d need about four or five to really understand what happens here,” he said.
Clad in long pants, closed-toe shoes, hard hats, and goggles, the students wandered into the unmarked doors of the plant. They needed earpieces to hear facts relayed from Gardner’s microphone — otherwise, the pounding and whirring of heavy machinery would have drowned out every mind-boggling statistic Gardner rattled off. Did you know the University demands 33 megawatts of power (comparable to the draw from a small city)? And chiller five, a 6,500-ton machine, is the largest east of the Mississippi.
Walking into the building, the students found themselves in a large, high-ceilinged room that looks like a garage. But instead of cars, there are four chillers parked at its far side. The chillers look like faceless Thomas the Tank Engines, with large, grey cylinders stacked on top of each other. You can see the colossal chiller five through the glass wall when you pass by Cogen on Elmwood. The chillers are responsible for, you guessed it, chilling water, which cools down air for air conditioning.
The bottom cylinder on the Thomases is called an evaporator, the top cylinder, a compressor. Inside the evaporator is refrigerant: In Cogen’s case, a chemical called 134A, or tetrafluoroethane. The plant gets water from campus that’s been used in air conditioning but is no longer cold. That water is spread across the refrigerant in the evaporator, which turns the refrigerant into a gas. Through evaporation, the refrigerant absorbs heat, which cools down the air-conditioning water. It’s then ready once again for cooling systems.
The process doesn’t stop there. The refrigerant has to be made back into a liquid so it can be used again and again for the same process. A side structure called the compressor pumps the refrigerant into the condenser (the top of the Thomases). Here, water from either a cooling tower or the Genesee River cools down the refrigerant and changes it back into a liquid. And it’s ready to once again make the chill water that is responsible for keeping three new stacks nice and frosty—in addition to 45 other buildings on campus and in Strong.
Beside the chillers, the room has all sorts of colorful tubes snaking around the structures. It almost looks like the playground equipment at a McDonald’s. But any children climbing through these tubes wouldn’t last long — the machines are pushing out about 30,000 gallons of water a minute, and the turbines driving them are spinning 5,200 times per minute.
Moving on with the tour, Gardner walked the group through a doorway into a room crowded with tall metal tanks; red, yellow, and black tubes of all sizes; and ladders. This is the boiler room, and it’s where a historic picture of former University President Rush Rhees was taken in 1924, at the plant’s opening. The third president was starting the “permanent fire” of the coal-burning boiler, a University article reported soon after. But the fire was, in the end, not permanent. In 1997 the University abandoned coal for the more user-friendly gas-oil combination.
“Burning coal is an art,” Gardner said. “How you burn it, how you operate it — no two loads are ever the same.”
The improved boilers now produce almost 700,000 pounds of steam per hour.
“Your furnace at your house is 300,000 [British thermal units], which is 300 pounds of steam per hour,” he said.
Steam, similar to chill water, is sent to buildings on campus to change the air temperature. It’s also responsible for heating up the water in your dorm room shower.
Though the oil boilers were updated in 1997, the plant always has to keep track of what machinery is getting old. Losing power, heating, or cooling for the University could be catastrophic for some.
“Students can go home. Patients can’t,” Gardner said.
So he and the rest of the plant staff must always anticipate what will need to be replaced before it breaks down. They also always have to be able to provide more power than the campus needs.
“If, for some reason, we lost natural gas, we need to be able to provide heat for campus for an average of five days — [expecting that they’re] the coldest days of any winter,” Gardner said.
Right now, the plant produces “n plus 1,” meaning that they’re able to provide more than the University needs, he said. But, with the construction of new buildings, the University’s demand is growing. So not only does Central Utilities need to pay attention to updating old equipment — Gardner, and the rest of the staff, need to anticipate growing and meeting the demand of the University. Which is why, he explains, they bought boiler 10.
Walking around the tubes and ladders, the students are introduced to a behemoth of a machine: boiler 10. It weighs around 90,000 pounds, about the same weight as a herd of seven good-sized African elephants. Boiler 10 was commissioned in 2016 to replace an old coal turned oil–boiler, to a newer and more efficient gas-oil combination boiler.
“It came on a rail car from Texas, was dropped off in Ontario, New York, put on a truck, and we slid it into place,” he said.
The process was a little more complicated than that. The new boiler sat in the Southside parking lot for two months while the plant made room for the monstrosity. They had to remove a wall to make space, create new flooring with structural steel, and demolish an old chiller that was taking up space. Destroying the chiller cost them about $12,000. By the time boiler 10 made it to its “final resting place,” as Gardner called it, the plant had spent $5.8 million — but that’s chump change compared to the $100 million 10-year master plan.
That money comes the budget for replacing infrastructure, which is different than the operating budget, the cost for simply running the place. But where the money for capital comes from, Gardner isn’t quite sure.
“This is a Joel Seligman–,Board of Trustees–type of question,” he said. “That money came from a campaign […] There are a lot of alumni that want to keep this place looking good and operating good.”
Running the power plant doesn’t sound like the sexiest fundraising campaign when marketing to alumni, but it’s probably one of the more important things the University has to put money toward.
“We’re growing at a rate that this plant can’t do it all,” Gardner said.
But of course, they are working ahead of the curve, trying to figure out what their needs are.
“The chill water master plan is starting to expire,” he said. “We’re starting to develop [a new one] and present it to people out there in the world.” Gardner walked the group around the boilers, ominously saying, “I’ll let you stare at the flame as it’s coming down at you.” A window lets passersby see into the machinery. There’s a bright, bright orange glow, a color so vibrant that a camera couldn’t quite capture what it looked like in person. It’s about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit inside, give or take a couple hundred degrees. And standing next to the boilers feels comparable. It was really, really hot. The goggles not only protected the students’ eyesight, but also protected their eyes from the sweat pouring down their foreheads. One woman stepped a little too far backward, and another yanked her forward. Gardner reminded everyone to be careful.
“That pipe has been stagnant for a while, so it might only be 200 degrees,” he said. “But you’ll feel it.”
Gardner explained that just because he touched something doesn’t mean the students should.
“My hands are a little more grizzled,” he said. “I noticed a burn the other day and I don’t even know how I got it.”
Working at the plant means the staff have to deal with sweltering heat and random burns, but like Gardner, it doesn’t seem to faze them. They’re so accustomed to the operations that Gardner says they can even smell water, easily sensing when something’s amiss. “They see a little haze, and they’re like, ‘Something’s changed.’ That’s what they do all day, every day.”
There’s a little control room next to the boilers. It’s not much bigger than a walk-in closet, and the space is made even more crowded by desks lining the walls. At best, it’s cozy, at worst, it’s claustrophobic. But the operating engineers have to stay there 24/7. The University employs 16 operating engineers, and four of them are always at the plant for their 12-hour shifts. Today, Bill Czudak, Ed Gossling, Brian Wilson, and Glenn Schultz are on shift. The same engineers always work the same shifts. They spend the time watching computer screens with temperatures and percents, arrows and boxes. To a layperson, it looks like gobbledygook. But to them, it’s important data giving the status of the plant and what needs to be adjusted or maintained. Their job is to sit and pay attention to the screens and respond if something needs to be adjusted.
“Are they doing anything? Do they look like they’re taxed?” Gardner asked the group.
Everyone shifted uncomfortably without responding, not wanting to insult the operators’ work ethic.
“No,” Gardner answered himself.
But he explains that this means they’re actually doing a good job, being on top of their work.
“A good operations group looks like this,” he said.
They anticipate when things are wrong so that the taxing work — handling emergencies — doesn’t happen.
Though the work should be low-key, it’s a tough commitment to make.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas Eve; it doesn’t matter if you have kids at home. [The operating engineers] are here. If you want a social life, it’s a hard job to be in,” Gardner admits, calling it “a shitty life.”
But it seems to foster its own social life. This small group of people are constantly together, in tight quarters, all working towards a common goal. They form a unique bond.
When asked what’s discussed during those non-taxing, late-night hours, Gardner said, “You name it, it’s talked about.”
And when asked whether he remembers conversations he had during his time as an operating engineer, Gardner smiles and vaguely answers, “Mhmm.”
Locker room talk?
“Could be,” he laughs.
“Nowadays, football’s a big subject,” said Czudak, the lead operating engineer. “We talk about sports, a lot of us hunt and fish … Just general life things, ya know?”
At one point, a siren went off and Czudak quickly clicked over the monitors, checking pressure levels. Gossling, who had been off checking something, ran back to the control room.
“Did you just hear something?” Gossling asked.
“Yeah, Rich and Glenn went to open that bypass,” Czudak replied.
“Did you hear it?”
“Oh yeah! I can bet you Glenn just about jumped off the ladder.”
“That scared the crap out of me.”
A landline phone on the wall rang. Gossling picked up.
“I was blaming Ringo — it was you!” he told the person on the other line.
“Yeah, sure!” Czudak giggled, adding, “Ringo’s my nickname.”
If the operating engineers ever get tired of their work, it’s not because of the people. It’s because they’re tired of spending those 12-hour shifts in the building, in the tiny control room, rotating every three shifts between days and nights. And like Gardner said, even if it’s Christmas, it doesn’t matter. The operating engineers are there, bringing heating, cooling, and electricity to the University But on Christmases they’ll still find ways to celebrate.
“A year before I got you those [lottery] books,” Schultz said to Czudak. “The young guy out here, Brian” —Brian Wilson is in his 40s— “he actually threw his in the garbage. It was a $20 winner.”
“I spend more time with these people than I do my family. I mean, these guys are my family,” Schultz said.