Powering Great Spaces

When we think about the University of Waterloo campus, there’s probably a first image that comes to mind.  Maybe it’s the Student Life Centre, with its bustling vendors and savoury smells, the lecture hall you visit every morning, or the residence you return to each night.  With over seventy buildings on campus, there’s no shortage of memorable locations.  Regardless of what space you chose, they probably require heating, cooling, and power.

Central plant exhaust stackIn mid-February, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Central Plant, the humming heartbeat inside the ring road.  Plant Operations showed me the three massive boilers at the centre of it all—think a furnace the size of your house, each producing about 60,000 tonnes of steam per day—as well as chillers, pumps, pipes, and the omnipresent stack.  I learned a lot about how the campus breathes and maintains its pulse, and I thought I would shed some light on how it works.

The UW South Campus operates as a district heating and cooling system. The steam from those boilers gets pushed out to each of the campus buildings, where the ventilation systems circulate air over the hot pipes. Voila, heat! In the summer, a similar process chills the air. Instead of having a boiler or air conditioner in each building, the plant enables a scalable and more efficient way to heat and cool our offices and classrooms. That's a good thing for the environment and for the University's bottom line when we talk about over 13 million cubic meters of gas and 107 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year. The plant also distributes electricity and water to service our labs, lights, and laptops.

From a sustainability perspective, I had a lot to think about. All that heat and power translates into emissions, which is why the Plant Ops team has made quite a few changes. Many lights have been replaced with higher efficiency bulbs, fans and pumps upgraded to variable-speed models, and heat recovery systems are in place to improve boiler and condenser efficiency.  These improvements aren't as flashy or visible as solar panels, but they make a major difference.Quantum Nano Centre electrical panels

New challenges are emerging as the campus grows and evolves.  Development of the North Campus is much trickier to link with the Central Plant, making it hard to piggyback on its efficiency.  Modern buildings are generally more sustainable than their older cousins, but our research intensity is also increasing.  For example, the clean room in the new Quantum-Nano Centre requires big, sophisticated filter systems to enable its cutting-edge research, and some floors have more circuit panels than there are in entire buildings elsewhere on campus.

Aside from the dedicated team of engineers, skilled trades, and operators who diligently maintain the pipes and pressure gauges, we normally don't think about the buildings we’re in every day. The mechanical systems are designed so we don't have to.  When we flick a switch, we want the lights to turn on and the heat to kick in, simple as that. Never mind how it works.

As Plant Ops explained some of the technical details, it struck me that a deeper understanding of our interaction with the physical campus might be in order.  We don’t need to understand building mechanics to recognize that there are opportunities for each of us to make UWaterloo more efficient.  Sure, Plant Ops can upgrade fixtures and adjust pipe pressure for efficiency gains, but some of the biggest impact comes from how we use our buildings. 

For example, consider that for every inch a fume hood is left cracked open, it costs the university about $200 in energy over the course of a year.  Charging our smartphones is a must, but doing it overnight or in the morning saves thousands of dollars thanks to time-of-use pricing.  Leaving a computer running overnight uses a miniscule fraction of UWaterloo’s energy, but magnify that across the tens of thousands of people who use the campus each day.  Those all waste energy and money that can go to scholarships, learning opportunities, research grants, or whatever else we really care about.

As UWaterloo continues on our sustainability journey, it’s worth contemplating our individual relationships with the spaces in which we live and work.  We tend to be quite disconnected, but it’s interesting to think that there is a sophisticated mechanical organism surrounding us every day.  We can trust the Plant Ops team to maintain and upgrade the heart and veins, but our actions help determine if the university is lean and efficient, or bloated and wasteful.