Often confused with Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell College, which is located in Mount Vernon, Iowa, was established in 1853 (12 years before Cornell University). The college’s hilltop campus is one of only two U.S. college campuses listed in their entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. About 60 buildings, some of which date back to the 1860s, contribute to the campus’ beauty.The school offers its 1,000 students a liberal-arts education, featuring more than 40 academic majors and pre-professional programs. Notably, Cornell follows a “One Course At A Time” curriculum, meaning students immerse themselves in one class for three and a half weeks before they take a four-day break and begin their next course. The “block plan”, as it’s known, results in a distinctive—albeit rigorous—learning environment.
Despite the college’s success in innovating over the years, one area in which Cornell was lagging was heating. The campus’ central heating plant was built in the late 1800s and provided steam heat (first powered by coal, then diesel and finally converted to natural gas in the 1960s) to the entire campus via underground piping.
As the three boilers in the central heating plant aged, expensive repairs were common. Underground pipes also were deteriorating at a rapid pace, causing some buildings to be without heat for days while steam leaks were repaired. The inefficiency of the underground piping also was apparent to students; in the dead of winter the ground above pipes would be a summer oasis, clear of snow, nurturing grass and attracting wildlife. When Joel Miller was hired as facilities director in 2010, he knew the campus’ heating solution had to change.
“When I started here, we came up with a saying: warm, safe and dry,” Miller says. “These are the three things we must ensure our students and building occupants can expect at Cornell. Heat was just not consistent.”
The Trouble with Steam
The 1960s boilers in the central heating plant were operating simultaneously when Miller began his tenure at Cornell. The school also was spending the money to inspect and clean all three 350-horsepower boilers. Miller opted to take one boiler offline; boilers two and three then provided the required heating and redundancy.
The antiquated heating solution is fairly straightforward. Water goes into the boilers and is converted to steam, which is pumped through underground lines to campus buildings. A condensate line carries the liquid from the steam away from the buildings and back to the boilers in the central heating plant.“This process is non-sustainable for a couple reasons,” Miller notes. “One is the underground lines run through campus for miles and miles. The lines are typically anywhere from 3- to 4-feet wide and are insulated with drywall dust basically. Two, when we’re converting from water to steam we have to chemically treat all this water to keep the lines that feed the buildings clean of residue created by the chemical composition of the water. We spend an enormous amount of money on chemicals just to treat the water.”
In addition, the carbon footprint of the entire process is enormous, Miller notes: Pumping chemicals into the water requires electricity; facilities staff members watch the pumps to make sure the water is treated properly; once a month one staff member tests the chemicals in the water. “It’s not just the fuel we use, it’s the time and expense of it all,” Miller points out. “Nobody ever thinks about the carbon footprint created every time you drive a vehicle to the central heating plant, the hours and cost and fuel for transporting that chemical from wherever it’s made, the plastic barrels we have left behind, the pumps that go bad, the maintenance we do. There’s a carbon footprint for all these things.”
Not to mention, Miller adds, students were uncomfortable. “The only true thermostat a student in a residence hall had was a window,” he says. “We couldn’t really throttle a building down because the valves probably didn’t work. When you cut that valve down it cuts down the pressure to the building, which lowers the temperature of the building and was just too hard to regulate.”
PHOTOS: Cornell College, unless otherwise noted