New ‘North Chiller’ plant serves crucial function: conditioning air, water

By Jackson Cote

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(Jessica Picard / Daily Collegian)

Tucked away in the Engineering quadrant behind Engineering Lab 2 (E-Lab II), the University of Massachusetts northern regional chilling plant, otherwise known as “North Chiller,” may easily be passed and overlooked by students rushing to class.

However, this does not stop the 65-foot, humble giant, with its extensive piping and glass paneling, from rising above the west side of E-Lab II to fulfill its crucial function: conditioning air and chilling water for much of the northern half of the UMass campus.

In addition to comfort-related cooling like air conditioning, North Chiller will also service chilled water service for research-focused, process-related purposes, according to the UMass Design and Construction Management’s website. Besides these functional purposes, the plant is also intended to provide a “visual learning” element to the Engineering quad community—as engineering majors can stop and observe the processes of the chiller.

“You have this utility plant that was previously this building that you didn’t know what was happening inside of it,” UMass Project Manager Ted Mendoza said, who oversaw the construction of the chiller. “Now it has more value than just this box that has something going on inside of it but you don’t know what.”

According to Mendoza, the architects of the project, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, thought about the fact that engineering students may be viewing the plant daily, and they took this into consideration when designing the building, then integrating it into the designs.

“Since it’s sitting next to Engineering Lab 2, wouldn’t this be cool if it was a building you could look into,” Mendoza said. “They [engineering majors] can slowly stare at this over time and make connections to what they’re learning about.”

Associate Dean and Associate Professor in the UMass College of Engineering James Rinderle also sees the plant as a facility capable of educating students. He predicts courses relating to thermodynamics, energy systems and thermal environmental engineering will tour the facility.

Despite the building being located on the corner of campus and slightly obscured from view, Rinderle said the facility will get some minor traffic, as there is a large lecture hall in E-Lab II.

“It’s not done, but I think it’s attractive. It’s a chilling plant. You have to have these things,” he added.

Construction of the plant began in August of 2016 with an initial estimation of finishing the plant in August of 2017. However, according to Mendoza, it was an “unseasonably warm fall last year” and construction needed to be pushed back. As the new plant sits on the footprint of the old one, Mendoza’s team needed to shut down the old plant and demolish it before they could construct the new one.

“Ideally, we wanted to shut down the plant in mid-October,” he said. “It was early-to-mid-December when we shut down the plant.”

There was also the added complexity of where the contractors needed to connect the plant to, Mendoza noted. North Chiller needed to be connected to the Physical Sciences building, also a new construction—which, when completed, will provide offices, laboratories, conference space and lab support for the physics and chemistry departments.

Mendoza said the construction and design teams had to think about the impact of whatever research is done in the building and the impact that it has on the building systems themselves, adding, “It requires more heavy-duty equipment to keep that space comfortable.”

“Normally in a room, you just need it to be heated or cooled for comfort,” he said. “In a lab room where research is done, there are a variety of different [factors] other than comfort that requires it to be conditioned.”

Some hypotheticals he brought up were a laser being needed to be cooled or chemicals needing to have conditioned air.

“You would need to feed conditioned, comfortable air into there, regardless of the temperature or air outside,” he said, noting that this creates a heavy burden on the chillers, boiler and steam heaters and air conditioners involved in the process.

While North Chiller is fully functional, the plant’s construction will not be completely finished until December. According to Mendoza, minor projects need to be done before it becomes a fully “occupiable” space. Some of these projects include finishing up construction of the bathrooms and an office inside the plant, as well as painting the interior walls.

But despite the pushback of North Chiller’s construction, Mendoza is feeling optimistic about the operation.

“I have a great crew,” Mendoza said. “Outside of the unexpected delays, they’re working on time.”

Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.