By Austin Gatcomb, Staff Reporter 

The biomass boiler (Photo by Austin Gatcomb)

The biomass boiler (Photo by Austin Gatcomb)

Construction of the Biomass Heating Plant has come a long way since fall semester, when trenches and loud equipment were a common, everyday sight. The project itself is nearing completion.

“Two weeks from now everyone will be out of here and this plant will be running,” said Jeffrey McKay, the Director of Facilities. The boiler itself is nearly complete and crews finalized the piping for the boiler on February 4.

“The week of the fifteenth,” said McKay, “there has to be a specialist flying out from Germany to do the fine tuning on the exhaust, so that’s kinda what we are waiting for now.” The project has remained mostly on schedule since its start, though the original completion date was in January.

The Biomass Heat Plant itself is replacing close to forty individual heating plants that are scattered throughout campus. “Most were over forty years of age,” said McKay, “and beyond their expected life expectancy.” While it is possible to make a plant last longer by replacing parts on the boiler, thirty years is the average life expectancy.

Many of these outdated plants were incredibly close to failing, but were aided with, as McKay called it, “Band-Aids and duct tape.” The new Biomass Plant will be much more efficient than the old heating system. The old plants had approximately 75% efficiency, which means that 75% of the fuel that was put in was converted to heat, whereas the new heating plant will run at 97% efficiency.

The newly constructed boiler is a 500 horsepower biomass boiler, one that uses wood chips for fuel. “The wood chips will be locally sourced from a North Anson biomass facility,” said President Foster in an email interview, “which is good for the regional economy.” After the wood chips are burned, the ash that is produced will be sent off to be composted.

“The campus needs about eight-hundred horsepower of boiler on the worst case scenario which is between eight and ten below zero,” said McKay. Currently, there is enough fuel in the plant that it could run for eight days at eight below zero. In the event of a more significant incident, there is already a contract in place for a backup boiler that can be trucked in and hooked up to the heat loop.

The new plant will also significantly decrease maintenance. “All of those heating plants were very high maintenance for the facilities department,” said McKay, “but now basically we are maintaining one plant.”

Prior to construction of the Biomass Plant, maintenance was performed at every boiler on campus. The decrease in time needed for maintenance jumped from several hours or days to now only half an hour per building. The plant will also feature the Train Tracer Program, allowing maintenance crews to witness the activity of the boiler, to see how heat is dispersing across campus, and to be notified if an alarm is going off, all from the plant’s control room.

The construction of the plant is “an $11 million dollar project, financed through a bond,” said Foster. The bond will be paid off in the next ten years, but “the heat plant allows UMF to be over 85% fossil fuel free to heat the campus.”