It is 11:30 a.m. in January at the University of Richmond boiler plant, and Jerome Towner has been up for seven hours and on the clock for five and half. Unclipping a flashlight from his belt loop, he strides by a maze of dusty blue pipes that are decorated with an assortment of yellow levers, circular dials and red danger signs. Most of the pipes go through the floor and the ceiling with no clear beginning or end, but one opens near the concrete floor, emitting a small cloud of steam. The white puffs diffuse into the air with a steady hiss.
Near the metal stairs, Towner stops and crouches. He peers into a black concrete tunnel that is approximately five feet in diameter, big enough for a grown man to crawl into but not stand up. He turns on his flashlight, illuminating the dark, dusty walls.
“This is the steam tunnel,” Towner said, raising his voice to be heard over the steady whoosh of machinery and crackles of radio music. “You can walk this tunnel over to Maryland Hall and all other places on campus. We go out there often to check for leaks and stuff.”
It is one of the two tunnels that leave the University of Richmond boiler plant where Towner has worked since 1993. One tunnel runs underground to the Richmond College side of campus, the other to the Westhampton side. The plant, a behind-the-scenes world of dusty pipes and rumbling machinery located behind Tyler Haynes Commons, is a brick building with a tall smokestack and gray-blue painted wooden doors that are starting to peel. The plant is staffed by 10 employees who monitor and maintain the equipment to ensure that enough steam is being generated to heat all the buildings on campus and produce hot water. Towner has witnessed many changes within the plant itself and around campus. Of great significance was the switch from coal to natural gas as the fuel source for the plant in 2011, a step toward meeting campus sustainability goals.
Towner’s job has evolved with new equipment, and no longer includes shoveling coal, but some things haven’t changed. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, Towner and other staff members monitor the plant and respond to any malfunctions or emergencies, providing comfort for the campus community.
“We’re the kind of people who don’t like being in the limelight,” George Souleret, director of utilities and university engineer, said. “If we are doing our job, no one knows we are down here, and we’re happy.”
President Frederic Boatwright and the Richmond College Board of Trustees purchased 290 acres in West Richmond, the beginnings of present-day campus, in 1910. The steam plant is one of University of Richmond’s six original buildings. Work began on the steam plant on Jan. 2, 1914, and was completed seven months later. In addition to the 8,410-square-foot building, approximately a mile of tunnels containing steam pipes, a condensate return system and conduits for electrical lines and telecommunication cables run underground.
Towner said the building structure hasn’t changed much since its original construction, except for the addition of a workroom where some employees do welding in their free time. However, the equipment inside has been upgraded to be more economically and environmentally efficient over the years.
Water flow through the plant is cyclical. Large volumes of water held in blue tanks are heated at high temperatures and converted into steam in the four large boilers that take up much of the first floor of the plant.
“Even though these boilers are the same boiler in essence – same age, same construction, same manufacturer – they operate differently,” Souleret said. “They actually seem to have their own personalities.”
Currently, the plant uses 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of water a day. Factors like weather or campus events can cause some variation in consumption.
While most of the plant operations are now automated, staff routinely check on equipment and respond to emergencies. If a boiler malfunctions or water levels in one of the tanks get too low, operators must figure out what is wrong and fix it quickly.
“We have to stay on our toes,” Towner said. “We don’t have the convenience of waiting three days. We have to get it going right then.”
Towner’s eyes twinkled and face brightened with a large grin as he explained the path that landed him the job as a boiler operator at University of Richmond.
“I love working here,” Towner said. “I know it’s the Lord’s doing. A part of his bigger plan.”
Growing up with four other siblings in Prichard, Alabama, Towner dreamed of playing football in college. However, after turning in his paperwork late to University of Alabama, he chose a different path.
“They ran out of student housing, so I was going to have to get an apartment off campus and pay for it,” Towner said. “My mother was like, ‘We can’t even afford where we live at.’”
So instead, Towner started working at a local upscale restaurant. After two years, he decided he wanted a job that brought him greater satisfaction. He joined the U.S. Navy and worked as a boiler technician on the USS McCandless because that is where an extra hand was most needed. Two years later, he attended boiler technician school.
After leaving the Navy, Towner recalled filling out his “dream sheet,” the places he wanted to seek employment. Virginia was not on the list, but it is where he got placed. He said at the time he felt disgruntled, but looking back he sees it as proof that God was looking out for him. He ended up working for nuclear power plants, living in Richmond and traveling to plants in Norfolk, Virginia, and Catawba, North Carolina.
Then in 1993, Towner’s mom saw the job opening at University of Richmond’s boiler plant and mentioned to him that he should apply. Not wanting to miss a day of work, Towner remembered driving to campus for the interview in the evening after his regular shift ended. After getting hired, he found out that his dedication to his current job was one of the things his boss found most impressive and played a role in the decision to hire him.
Twenty-three years later, Towner is still working 12-hour shifts – two days on, two days off – all year long.
“These guys are jacks of all trades,” Souleret said. “We have to trust them to be our eyes and ears when everyone else is sleeping.”
During his time at the boiler plant, Towner has witnessed a lot of change. He specifically mentioned the shift in fuel source, pointing to a large glass jar filled with dusty black coal on a shelf in the boiler-plant office – a memento of the old way of doing things.
The plant is currently fueled by natural gas, but this was not always the case. Historically, the plant burned approximately 7,000 tons of coal annually, and railroad tracks ran alongside the plant to deliver it. In 2011, coal was replaced with natural gas. The decision was driven by a variety of factors including student pressure, reduced cost and decreased carbon emissions.
“We have a great historical legacy of sustainability,” Rob Andrejewski, University of Richmond director of sustainability, said. “Energy efficiency has been happening for decades. When we do upgrades, we do things that are more efficient. That is good fiscally and environmentally.”
According to University of Richmond’s 2016 Sustainability Report, since 2008, the University has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent, in spite of building square footage increasing by more than 9 percent. The switch to natural gas to fuel the plant was a significant chunk of this reduction, and is a major step toward meeting the goals outlined in the university’s 2010 Climate Action Plan. The plan includes reducing greenhouse gas emission levels by 30 percent below 2008 levels by 2020 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
Dr. Mary Finley-Brook, associate professor of geography and the environment, expressed excitement about some of the actions taken by the university to promote sustainability, but also suggested that a lot more needs to be done to foster a campus culture of economic, social and environmental awareness and responsibility.
“We’ve done the serious stuff that facilities can do behind the scenes, but we haven’t changed how you or I consume energy,” she said.
Actions such as changing the boiler plant fuel, using more energy-efficient design in construction, installing solar panels and including stewardship as one of the five goals in the university’s draft strategic plan are positive actions toward campus sustainability.
However, Finley-Brook suggested that now that the big behind the scenes actions, such as ending coal usage by the boiler plant, have been done, smaller actions and changes in the campus community members’ consumption behaviors are going to be necessary to meet reduction and sustainability goals.
Andrejewski said cogeneration – combined heat and power production – as well as consideration of alternative energy sources and increased sustainability education and engagement are options he thinks are worth exploring as he looks at ways campus can continue to work toward sustainability goals.
However, a sustainability approach may focus on longer-term decisions, and it is a never-changing fact that a lot must happen in the short term to keep campus operating smoothly.
“Different people have different things they have to make sure happen,” Andrejewski said. “My lens is going to be more holistic than facilities as it should be. They need to make sure we are caring for campus now, and I need to make sure we are caring for campus in the future.”
Souleret said, “We want to make an environment where education can take place.”
Towner voiced a similar sentiment.
“We are built for your comfort,” he said.