Easy to Miss: UVM’s Coolest New Building

08-16-2017 | By Jeffrey R. Wakefield

With all the new buildings sprouting up on UVM’s central campus, it’s easy to overlook the university’s new chiller plant (pictured below), which opened in July. 

The chiller – a 7,500 ft. addition that juts out from the old Central Heating and Cooling Plant behind Royall Tyler Theatre – is certainly less glamorous than, say, the Discovery Building in the STEM complex, which opened in June, or the first-year residence hall that opens later this month.   

But without it, those buildings would be considerably less suave between May and October.

Constructed over an 18-month period at a cost of $11 million, the chiller significantly expands the university’s air-conditioning capacity, cooling to 42 degrees a steady stream of water – 1,500 tons worth – and circulating it through a two-mile network of underground pipes to both new buildings, as well as to the new connector that attaches the res hall to the Bailey/Howe library.

When they’re completed, the new chiller will also serve the Innovation Building in the STEM complex, the Grossman School’s Ifshin Hall and the renovated Billings Library.

The casual passerby might overlook the new chiller plant completely. Its brick walls, arched doorway and gently sloped roof are so evocative of the architectural style of the circa 1900 Central Heating and Cooling Plant, it could easily be mistaken for its historic predecessor.  

Inside the addition, though, it’s all 21st century. The chiller itself is a complex of two gray steel cylinders resting on their sides like oversize pontoons, which anchor a graceful weave of pipes called a compressor on top of the apparatus. The compressor re-refrigerates the flowing reservoir of water (which returns to the chiller at 54 degrees after snaking through the buildings it cools) so it’s ready for redistribution.

The new chiller is UVM’s third. The first two, completed in 2007, served the last generation of new buildings with 2,700 tons of chilled water. But they had reached capacity.

“In 2007, we bought the equivalent of a 25-passenger bus,” says Sal Chiarelli, UVM’s physical plant director. “Initially, we had just the bus driver and a few passengers: the Davis Center, Old Mill/Lafayette, Bailey/Howe, Marsh Life Science, and Royall Tyler Theatre.” But as the years went by, more and more buildings climbed on board: the Health Science Research Facility, Given, Votey, Kalkin, Jeffords, the Aiken Center and Terrill.

“We needed another bus,” Chiarelli says.

The new and old chillers are part of system for heating and cooling the university that is centralized rather than distributed over campus, building by building.

Efficiency is one key advantage of the centralized model. For safety reasons, all HVAC systems need redundant capability. The centralized version does that once; with a local system, each building would need to replicate aspects of its system. 

“You’d be installing 75 percent more capacity than you need,” Chiarelli says.

Maintenance is also easier, and local noise is eliminated.

With everything in one place, the centralized system has another plus: human oversight. Network operator Dan Treadway, who’s stationed at a computer monitor in the Central Heating and Cooling Plant's control room, can take advantage of 70,000 sensors studded throughout the university’s buildings to spot trouble when it arises and dispatch help.

Whenever it's necessary to make additions to the heating and cooling system, Chiarelli and his team cast an eye to the future.

In 2007, for instance, they anticipated that both Billings and Williams Hall would one day need air conditioning, so installed inlet and outlet pipes in both – which will soon be connected to the new chiller.

That’s true this time around, too. The new addition includes a slot for another chiller, in anticipation of yet more new development, and the piping system has been designed to accept it.

In addition to the health and wellness of UVM’s physical plant, Chiarelli has another cause he’s devoted to: gaining recognition for the 180 staff in his department whose work, though crucial to the operation of the university, often goes unnoticed.

To that end, he invited the campus to a grand opening tour of the chiller plant in early August. About 190 UVM’ers showed, along with a smattering of off campus dignitaries.

“It’s just expected that everything works,” Chiarelli says, including air conditioning on a scorching summer day. “I want to give people an understanding of what these people do here around the clock, seven days a week.”