Thursday, April 14, 2016

Keeping our cool during exams

A quiet winter leads to an early cooling season
Winter was a whisper this year, prompting FM to prepare campus for air conditioning slightly ahead of schedule - even as early as this week. The process begins with refilling chiller coils in high priority spaces, including residences and buildings/rooms where exams are being held.

Preparing the system for cooling in an annual routine that can take a couple of weeks to complete and may lead to a little discomfort during the transition.

As with every Spring, warmer than normal building temperatures can be expected at Western as a result of the seasonally variant weather. The fluctuations in outdoor conditions during the early Spring and Fall are known as the 'shoulder season' and present an annual challenge for Western’s heating and cooling provider.

Plant operators monitor boilers and chillers
When compared to the average household, the size and complexity of Western’s district heating and cooling system (from the central power plant) has significant differences.  For example, a quick flick of a switch on the thermostat at home and the air conditioning kicks in. Turn it the other way and the furnace fires up. On campus however, the switch from providing cool air to buildings in the summer to warm air in the winter is much more involved. Furthermore, once there is a commitment to begin cooling campus buildings, it isn’t feasible to reverse the process until the following Fall.

In many of our building the same infrastructure and distribution pipes are shared between the heating and cooling system. As a result, warm and cold air cannot be generated and sent through a building at the same time.

“It’s like comparing a freighter to an outboard motorboat,” say Facilities Management Communications Officer, Brandon Watson. “You can’t make sudden adjustments with such a large vessel– you must begin planning and executing well in advance if you are turning around”.

One of the chillers cooling campus over the summer
The systems are massive. Chillers, which are located both in the south plant and in the basement of Natural Sciences building, produce enough capacity to cool about 5,000 homes. Steam, used for heating indoor air, is produced in the south plant. In the winter months, the boilers can push out 400,000 pounds of steam an hour to Western buildings and University Hospital – enough to heat 40 Budweiser Gardens.

Aside from the enormity of the system, the decision to switch from heating to cooling on campus relies on other factors. Weather plays the greatest role in determining the schedules. If there are hot days ahead, Facilities Management may initiate the switch to air conditioning in early April. However, by filling coils to early, sub-zero outdoor temperatures could return and damage the water filled pipes.

“Splits in the coils are problematic,” says Watson. “Depending on the rupture, whole coils may need to be repaired or replaced, putting efforts to cool the buildings again next year behind schedule. We continue to balance protecting our infrastructure with keeping campus comfortable during the shoulder seasons. I hope our clients will continue to be patient as we get the freighter turned around.”

Community members experiencing warm temperatures this Spring are encouraged to contact Facilities Management at ext. 83304 or online at The concern may be related to the shoulder season or there may be a need for repairs to system, such as, improper control settings or fan and pump failures. The Division will maintain a record of customer calls in order to create a profile to be used to improve the system moving forward.

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