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Arc-Flash Explosion Triggers Renovation, Savings at University of Alabama

By Dan Hounsell, Editor - August 2013 - HVAC

The arc-flash explosion that rocked the central energy plant at the University of Alabama (UA) in July 2011 cut off cooling and power to six high-profile academic buildings on the scenic and historic campus. It also put a long list of key components out of service.

Beyond the immediate damage, the catastrophic event also created a host of challenges for the university's facility operations department, including the need to quickly restore temporary cooling to the academic buildings and, eventually, to renovate the central energy plant.

But the dark cloud also came with a very appealing silver lining — greater energy efficiency and savings. Specifically, the increased piping and system efficiency resulting from the renovation decreased the utility cost to operate the plant by 32.2 percent, says Greg McKelvey, the university's director of HVAC and energy management. It also increased chilled-water capacity by 33 percent.

Closer Look: More Information on Alabama's Arc-Flash Explosion

One essential element of the project's success — from design and execution to efficient operation — was the department's in-house staff.

"No one knows the equipment better than the people who work on it daily, so we engaged the maintenance employees in the very beginning of the renovation design and planning process and utilized their knowledge, " says Duane Lamb, assistant vice president of facilities and grounds. "We also had numerous discussions with them on ways improve to the operation of the re-designed energy plant."

Short-Term Actions

The arc-flash explosion, possibly caused by a small animal, occurred in the plant's main 2,000-amp, 480-volt, three-phase electrical panel, McKelvey says, "destroying the panel and shutting down power to the energy plant."

The damage to equipment was substantial. An adjacent motor-control center panel that powered pumps, cooling towers, and a boiler had to be replaced, as did two cooling-tower fan motors, three chilled-water pump motors, a boiler-condensate pump, and two exhaust-fan motors. The blast also damaged the chillers' motors, and although they remained operational, low test readings concerned technicians enough that the motors' uncertain reliability led to the decision to replace the chillers.

The department quickly sought a temporary method of cooling the affected buildings. McKelvey contacted a supplier of generators and cooling equipment, and within 18 hours, three rental chillers and a 1,250 kilowatt (kW) generator arrived. The maintenance staff installed the units, which were cooling the buildings within 36 hours.

"I had used this rental company on several occasions prior to coming to work for UA in 2010, so I was familiar with the process," McKelvey says. "Maintenance employees immediately started making modifications to the energy plant's piping system to provide locations and valves where the rental chillers could be tied into the UA chilled-water-distribution system."


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