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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.
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.
"UA is fortunate to have a highly skilled and hard-working maintenance staff, and the UA maintenance employees were instrumental from day one," Lamb says. "UA's organizational model for maintenance is to staff the department with the skills needed to perform almost any work required to maintain the campus on a daily basis."