On the north end of the Allendale Campus, tucked behind Public Safety, is a building that few people at Grand Valley think about, but whose work is essential to the university. Even its name -- the Central Utilities Building -- sounds less than exciting.

But earlier this year, the building's doors were thrown open to the campus community in an effort to make people aware of the work that goes on there. What those visitors found was a thumping, hissing (but surprisingly clean) operation filled with compressors, pumps and gauges -- and, as Grand Valley Magazine photographer Bernadine Carey-Tucker discovered, a great deal of beauty.

"I thought it would be good for the staff of the university to know of the existence of this building -- the complexity of it, the function, how we produce all of these necessities, and to meet some of the five highly-trained engineers managing this plant," said John Scherff, Facilities Services maintenance supervisor and project manager. He added that it's another part of the Grand Valley success story.

"We excel so much academically and athletically and with our outward appearance. But I think people need to know that we have even more that we're entitled to be proud of," Scherff said.

The CUB is filled with the university's two boilers and four chillers and an impressive, hulking array of pipes leading out onto campus and back. These pipes, painted in festive colors to indicate their contents, send steam and chilled water to the campus over two miles underground. The facility provides heating in the winter, cooling in the summer and electricity year-round. Scherff likes comparing the operation to a human body.

"Essentially, your entire comfort is provided right here," he said. "The boilers, chillers and pumps combine to form the heart, pumping these essentials out through the pipes like arteries in your body, taking it to the mechanical rooms in each building. The mechanical rooms out on the campus are like the organs of your body. Steam, chilled water and power are going to the mechanical rooms and then get distributed to satisfy the specific needs of the whole campus. So, the analogy of the body is quite correct."

     The facility is a 24-7 operation. One of the engineers, Mike Malloy, explained what his day is like.

"We monitor the buildings for temperature, we check for alarms on the computer, and for systems that are malfunctioning as to heating and cooling. We try to check trouble spots, monitor the equipment: the boilers, the chillers, the pumps," Malloy said.

The engineers also gather, store and interpret a massive amount of data and monitor buildings for fire and theft alarms.

Terry Pahl, facilities engineer, quantified the amount of energy it takes to keep Grand Valley comfortable.

"From a power standpoint, you can equate it to an average four-person house. The amount of power that comes through here is enough to light up 5,000 homes, so that puts it into a little perspective. The amount of gas that comes through amounts to about 1,300 homes," Pahl said.

Given the wide climate swings in Michigan, Malloy said it's more of a challenge when the weather is hot and humid than when the weather is cold. Because steam is used in the process of creating cool air, in the summertime they also have to run the boilers and the chillers, making the building quite hot.

Through a computerized energy management system in a control booth near the boilers, an engineer can pull up nearly any Grand Valley office, see what the temperature is in that office and adjust it remotely. Malloy demonstrated the system by pulling up a report of a zone of three or four rooms.

"We can look at a hundred different control points for that particular zone of three rooms -- air flow, heating, water, valve positions," Malloy said.

Scherff said the entire campus isn't hooked up to the digital control system yet; a few buildings still have remnants of the old pneumatic system, but those systems will likely be replaced in the next couple years.

The work of the engineers goes on largely unnoticed by nature, the work is somewhat invisible. People don't think about it when the temperature in a building is just right.

"The closest we get to a compliment is when people call when we are able to make a correction quickly," Scherff said.

Scherff added that the CUB doesn't have to be a mystery to the campus community. Art classes have visited and sketched the machinery, and tours of the facility are available by contacting Scherff.

Page last modified July 29, 2011