New Era for Steam at Duke

Historic plant burns natural gas after renovation

After renovation, the East Campus steam plant will help power the campus.

When Duke's steam plant was built 100 yards off the rail tracks near East Campus in 1926, it was heralded as one of the best in its class: Georgian architecture with decorative brickwork, two-story tall window arches and interior oak finishes.

For about 50 years, the plant's coal-fired boilers supplied steam through underground pipes and tunnels to heat campus buildings until the plant closed in 1978.

The plant is scheduled to reopen in January after a $25 million renovation that marks another era at Duke: natural gas -- not coal -- will fuel the new boilers. The system will provide 35 percent more steam to heat academic and medical buildings, sterilize surgical equipment and maintain proper humidity for art and lab research.

"It really is a historic restoration," said Floyd Williams, who managed the project for Facilities Management. "We're taking a building and adding state-of-the-art technology to produce steam at high efficiency and ultra-low emissions."

The plant, which sits off West Pettigrew Street, will become Duke's base system, supplying the equivalent of enough steam each hour to heat 2,500 houses. Duke's other steam plant, built in 1929 on West Campus near Research Drive, will be a "peaking plant" with the capacity to burn coal, oil, recycled oil and natural gas when demand is high during the coldest days of the year.

"With this conversion, Duke is expected to cut its coal consumption by approximately 70 percent," said John Noonan, associate vice president for Facilities Management.

The effort is part of Duke's overall goal to become a climate-neutral campus, a commitment by President Richard Brodhead in 2007, as part of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Converting the plant on East Campus to natural gas isn't the only sustainable feature of the system. In hopes of earning a silver rating in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the U.S. Green Building Council, Duke is reusing 87 percent of the original building and making use of recycled water, including rainwater from the new roof to operate the plant's only toilet.

"The reuse of this existing building, and its re-commissioning as a steam plant, represents a major commitment to sustainability," Noonan said.

Architects in the firm of Horace Trumbauer, the architect of Duke University, designed the original plant on East Campus. The firm's work also included a collection of 11 buildings on East Campus that the plant served.

 A newspaper headline on April 22, 1926, announced a " -- New Heating Plant of Size at Duke University."

"The plant will supply heat for the present campus community, including the large new unit of eleven buildings -- " the article said. "Land has been purchased by the university bordering the tracks of Southern railway siding, where coal will be loaded directly from the railway tracks to the plant via trestle and chute, and a tunnel, to be built under the tracks, will allow the main steam pipe line to enter the campus -- "

At a cost of $440,000 during the unsteady financial times of the late 1920s, the steam plant included architectural features and touches uncommon for an industrial building.


The Steam Plant in 1926.

Cornices, decorative brickwork and recessed brick medallions with brick around inset square concrete panels resembled details of tobacco factories and warehouses.

Up until 1978, rail cars delivered coal along a trestle to a corrugated tin shed on the plant's roof. From there, the coal dropped through floor gates to three furnaces below. After the steam plant closed, the generation of steam to heat and dehumidify hundreds of campus buildings and sterilize surgical and other health system equipment was completely provided by the plant on West Campus.

But because the renovated plant on East Campus will carry the system's load and burn only natural gas, much less coal will be used to fuel the West Campus steam plant boilers. Coal now arrives at the plant on West by truck, instead of rail, ending an 80-year tradition. Duke is investigating how to convert the remaining coal-fired boilers in the West Campus plant to alternative fuels.

At the East Campus plant, dozens of crew members have worked more than a year to renovate the 7,500-square-foot space. Site work involved a range of tasks like restoring the tin rooftop shed for new mechanical equipment; grinding out and refilling most of the old brick mortar on the building and smokestack; gutting the interior and installing the 15 natural-gas powered Miura boilers, considered the largest installation of its kind in the United States.


The new gas boilers require less water and time to produce steam -- and at lower emissions and greenhouse gases than coal. Instead of using lots of energy to fire up one to three large coal boilers, the plant can calibrate among 15 smaller gas boilers based on demand.

"This creates a significant reduction in the energy losses associated with a typical start-up, purge and warm-up cycle of a boiler," said Russell Thompson, director of utilities and engineering for Facilities Management.

The plant's accompanying 175 feet tall brick smokestack remains but only as an architectural relic.

"The smokestack is imposing once at the site, yet successfully inconspicuous upon leaving it," a student wrote in a 1996 art history paper kept in the University Archives.

Duke also salvaged one of the plant's original black, cast iron coal boilers. It will be on display in the lobby.