step back to avoid the blast of super-hot air that still slams
you in the face as the plant foreman swings open the 2-inch-thick,
lunch-tray-sized door. The thundering fire inside throws an orange-yellow
glow onto the once white-painted concrete walls.
"Pretty hot in there," yells Wallace Spring over the roar of
the boiler's inferno. Spring is the foreman at Utah State University's
Central Heating Plant.
Ben Berrett, the mechanical and electrical manager at USU, also
moves to peer inside the rumbling boiler. He has seen it before,
but there is something about the intense, yellow glow that makes
you want to look again.
Just down the wooded hillside from the Haight Alumni House stands
the heating plant, which appears to be nearing the end of its
century of faithful service. The university is making plans to
build a gas-fired steam plant and abandon the old one as it nears
the point of wearing out. Berrett said the largest obstacle so
far has been getting funding from the Legislature for construction.
"We finally made it to the top of the list," he said.
A comprehensive infrastructure study created by Stanley Consultants
in February estimated the cost of a new plant at about $40.5 million.
The Utah Legislature approved just over $9 million for the project
Berrett said the university is just getting started with the
planning of a new plant, which he thinks will be built northwest
of the Spectrum, immediately across from 900 North Street.
Until a new plant opens, the university will continue to rely
on the one that has pumped steam out to the far reaches of the
Logan campus for many years. Exactly how many is a question.
"We aren't really sure," said Spring. "I have heard the year
1898 kicked around a little bit, but I'm not sure anybody really
Records in the university's Special Collections at Merrill Library
don't do much to clear up the question.
In 1911, the Biennial Report, a campus publication, said, "The
capacity of the heating plant has been too small for the needs
of the college buildings." The plant was described as old-fashioned
and wasteful, and an "unecessary expense for the state." That
report is the earliest document the library has that mentions
the heating plant.
"The east wall is part of the old original building," said Spring.
Today the wall bows from its struggle to hold back the hillside
behind it. It looks like a patchwork of cracked concrete, crumbling
red-brick foundations and a number of failed attempts to resurface
it with some sort of rough masonry.
"You can only guess how well that would survive an earthquake,"
said Berrett. "Look, you can see the old, original re-bar, or
what's left of it," he said, pointing to the dimly lighted wall.
The metal that was meant to reinforce the concrete wall is now
exposed, and you can see what's left of it running vertically
down the wall where the concrete has broken away. It has nearly
disintegrated into a rust-colored line that runs nearly to the
floor before the crumbling concrete is intact enough to cover
"I don't think this part of the wall even holds anything," said
Spring, pointing to a corner where a child-sized piece of concrete
has broken loose.
In the 1911 report is a request for the plant to be remodeled.
It said, "The new plant is one of the best planned in the state,
it has been argued that it may be extended to care for the university
under any reasonable growth for fifty to one hundred years."
Eighty-nine years later, the university still relies on that
remodeled plant. Library records show that it was remodeled again
in the early 1940s, and again in the early 1960s. Each renovation
brought in newer equipment and expanded the building, but the
old part is still operating and the same old boilers are still
The latest addition to the plant came last year, when all of
its control systems were computerized. Spring said that the new
controls have helped to increase the plant's efficiency, but the
plant is fighting a losing battle because the equipment operated
by the controls is so old. He said the plant is well maintained,
but worn out from long, hard service.
The plant operates 24 hours a day, all year long. Spring said
it is shut down for 10 days every summer for upkeep, but is brough
back on line as quickly as possible. Many buildings require hot
water or steam during the summer.
The plant heats more tham 100 buildings on campus, and more
than 3.5 million square feet, said Berrett. The pipes run as far
north as the Spectrum and as far south as the Ray B. West building.
The Fine Arts Building is on the system, and so is Old Main. Every
building on the main campus is connected to the main line that
runs from the heating plant. Berrett said the main steam lines
are as big a concern as the boilers themselves. They too are old
and worn out.
"The new Widtsoe Building has added a huge new load to the system,"
said Berrett. "I don't even know if I could tell you all of the
places that use steam on campus."
The plant heats all of the hot water the campus uses, and many
of the air conditioners require steam to operate. Many of the
science and research labs also require steam.
Berrett said he thinks it is interesting that a top-of-the-line
research facility such as Widtsoe is being connected to such old
technology. While research technology is upgraded, the heating
process remains the same.
That heating begins deep in a coal mine in Scofield, Utah, as
coal is dug up and trucked to USU. The coal is dumped through
a grate in the heating plant parking lot, where it falls into
a temporary storage bunker.
The underground bunker is a large, square funnel that feeds
the coal onto an enclosed, screw-driven conveyor. The conveyor
shuffles the coal lup to the roof of the building and loads it
in another storage bunker.
>From the roof, the coal can be fed into the boilers, mixed
with force-fed air and ignited. The USU plant burns 42 to 120
tons of coal a day, depending on the air temperature. That works
out to about four dump truck loads a day in the summer and 10
in the winter.
The hellish heat generated by the boilers turns water into steam
and sends it rushing out to campus at 220 degrees Fahrenheit.
The steam is released into a network of tunnels and pipes that
run everywhere below campus. Those pipes feed steam to the classroom
heaters, where it condenses and is returned to the plant at 160
degrees. The plant collects the condensed steam in a yellow tank
the size of a semi-trailer, called a condensate receiver.
The receiver sits about 20 feet off the plant floor and feeds
the water back into another trailer-sized tank where any oxygen,
acid and minerals are removed. This keeps the iron parts of the
system from corroding too quickly. The water is then fed back
to the boiler to begin the trip again.
"We can burn natural gas and diesel fuel if we have to," said
Spring. It is necessary to have backup systems for the boilers.
He said that natural gas is the No. 1 backup, but if it gets really
cold outside, Questar will shut off the gas supply to save fuel
for residential areas. The gas boiler had been fired recently
when a visitor stopped by, creating the brilliant purple-yellow
flame that could been seen when Spring opened the access door.
Spring can remember the gas being shut off only twice in his
16 years at the plant.
If the plant can't get coal and Questar shuts off the gas, Berrett
said the plant could use 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel stored
"The problem is, 40,000 gallons will last us about one day,"
said Berrett. He said that the university has a stockyard on the
north end of campus that can hold about 30 days' worth of coal,
and it has a generator that keeps the plant running during power
"We have done everything we can to keep things from freezing
up on campus," said Berrett. He said the plant must keep the boilers
running at all costs.
The five boilers are square iron boxes, each the size of a small
house, that look like something you would see on a very large
steam locomotive. They are painted bright red, but the paint has
faded and the iron darkened from years of heat and daily cleaing.
"This one here is our newest boiler," said Spring, pointing
to the crouching red giant at the west end of the gymnasium-sized
building. It is more than 30 years old, he said.
The age of the boilers is a concern to plant operators because
all of the operation and maintenance manuals that the plant has
suggest that 40 years is as long as you should operate a boiler.
The plant controls its pollution levels by fine-tuning the air-fuel
ratio, said Spring. As long as it is running properly, there will
never be a heavy black cloud of smoke coming from the buring coal.
Instead, there is usually harmless white steam above the plant.
"We have a burp once in a while," said Berrett. "The neighbors
start calling really quick when that black smoke starts pouring
out of the stacks."
Berrett said they usually don't have to worry about emissions,
and he credits capable plant operators.
When old equipment does break down, the plant crew usually hands
its own repairs. Spring said getting spare parts is always a challenge
since many of the companies that built the original equipment
aren't around anymore.
Most of the parts they can order come from the Great Lakes region.
Those companies generally don't have parts on hand, so they have
to hire a foundry to build new ones. Spring said the foundries
wait until they have enough parts ordered to be worth their time
to produce them.
"It takes 12 to 20 weeks to get new parts," said Spring. Spring
and his crew try to keep spare parts on hand, but they are expensive.
They are able to do most of the repairs because of Spring's lifelong
experience with steam boilers.
"We don't have anyone here with a degree in boilers," Spring
interior of the plant is a maze of color-coded pipes, with green
pipes for steam and yellow for water.