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Training for Savings: Boiler Upgrade Challenges University

Big-ticket retrofits of key systems in institutional and commercial facilities can only deliver the intended benefits if maintenance and engineering managers pay close attention to post-installation issues.

The managers and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) physical plant department know this all too well. During the fall of 2010, work started on a $250 million dollar upgrade to convert the university's coal-powered Charter Street heating plant into a natural gas and biomass plant. Replacing the existing boilers was a significant part of the project. The final price tag was $188 million, and it was one of the largest state-funded projects in history, resulting in the university saving $1.5 million a year in energy costs.

Staff training on operating the new boilers and accompanying systems was a significant challenge for the 50-person utility plants staff, which had to maintain normal operations at the same time.

"Several of our existing boilers operated on gas and oil, so there were no major boiler operational issues other than learning how to operate the updated digital controls for the boilers," says Faramarz Vakili, director of the physical plant department for operations, maintenance, and utilities and the director of campus sustainability operations. "The existing remaining boilers were upgraded from pneumatic controls to digital controls, as well.

"Part of the project scope included intensive training for all the staff and development of standard operating procedures. There were challenges training staff on a whole new system all the while maintaining standard operations and continually meeting the steam and chilled water demands of the campus."

The training process included a mix of hands-on, classroom and online instruction with the assistance of the boiler manufacturer and project consultants.

"We had excellent training personnel that were brought in to train all our staff on the new pieces of equipment," says Dan Dudley, campus utilities engineer. "The challenge was that we were somewhat understaffed and taking time out to do the training, finding time to do it and trying to minimize overtime was the biggest challenge."

The department was prepared for the impact training would have on the budget, thanks to a state project manager who had experience at the plant level. The project manager's background in plant operations was vital, as his past experiences helped adjust the budget to accommodate training issues.

Considering the major transformation of the physical plant, training continues even as most of the project is complete.

"We're still getting comfortable," Dudley says. "It's an ongoing learning process. We're hiring new people which are providing additional support during the transition, but I can't say we're totally comfortable yet. The major equipment in the project was phased in.

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