Why 37 Universities Copied This School’s Energy Program

Executives from Western Michigan University and Armstrong International describe how the university-wide steam trap energy program operates.


energy system
Provided by WMU

Western Michigan University (WMU) is one of the first universities in the U.S. to address climate change in 2012, but it began its efforts way before. Back in 1988, the university teamed up with Armstrong International to build a university-wide steam trap energy savings program that has now been modeled by 37 other universities to reduce their carbon footprints.

In addition to saving more than $4 million between 1988 and 2011 in energy, and millions more since then, the program has helped WMU reach its carbon-neutral goals. Encompassing 151 buildings, including 22 residence halls, and 200 campus apartments, the steam trap program captures campus-generated heat that would otherwise be wasted to make steam for heating buildings in the winter and driving devices that cool buildings in the summer.

To learn more about how this program came to be, Facility Executive spoke with John E. Seelman PE, Director of Engineering, Facilities Management, Western Michigan University and Patricia Provot, President, The Americas, Armstrong International.

Tell us about this steam trap program. How does it gather heat that would have otherwise been wasted heating or cooling building?

Provot: To understand the magnitude of the steam trap program, we need to talk about the extent of Western Michigan University’s power needs. The university serves more than 18,000 students on campus with more than 8 million sq. ft. of building space within 122 buildings. WMU powers all of this with a central steam/electric (co-generation) plant and a decentralized chilled water plant, operated by 66 skilled-trade employees and a 13-person management staff. Its steam and condensate utilities include 13.9 miles of underground steam and condensate lines, 2.3 miles of utility tunnels, four steam zones, six condensate zones, and 2,773 steam traps working 24/7 to minimize steam loss, alleviate condensate in the system, prevent corrosion in the steam pipes and promote air and carbon dioxide ventilation – all of which helps the plant operate efficiently and effectively.

These steam traps are essentially the heart of the school’s steam system, and when one goes down, it simply acts like an open valve allowing steam to leak through it. As a result, the plant’s overall steam production must increase, reducing the efficiency of the operation. Every hour that a steam trap is down, the university loses valuable power and therefore must generate excess power to make up for the loss.

The average life of a trap is 7 to 10 years which means that each year 10%-15% of the steam traps need to be replaced. On average, this can cost $6,000 per year in waste per steam trap and put tens of thousands of pounds of carbon in the atmosphere. That can add up, considering WMU’s campus employs thousands of steam traps.

WMU partnered with Armstrong to implement a steam trap management program in 1988 to reduce steam usage, reduce water hammer, increase cost savings, boost heat transfer efficiency and increase comfort for students and staff with an optimally running cooling and heating system. Initially, the team executed a comprehensive building inspection to test the system, in an effort to find out how they could decrease emergency maintenance calls and reduce heat exchanger bundle, coil issues and back pressure in return lines, in addition to extending the life of piping and other components.

Once the steam traps were optimized for efficiency, the team equipped the steam traps with wireless technology to collect data 24/7. The data are transferred to plant operators and engineers for vault testing and trending analysis. The wireless monitoring technology allowed WMU to significantly reduce the time typically required with manual testing. This ensured engineers do not have to navigate difficult enclosures or enter areas with harsh elements, sometimes exceeding indoor temperatures of 180°F or reaching below outdoor temperatures of 10°F. This also improves safety and lowers costs.

This process helps Armstrong and WMU measure and manage steam trap data 24/7 to identify areas of improvement within the steam system immediately and reduce maintenance of the steam traps, ultimately resulting in the conservation of energy without impacting the output of the power system.

energy management
Provided by WMU

What were WMU’s carbon-neutral goals starting out, and when were these goals achieved?

Seelman: When we began the steam trap program in 1988, we had financial concerns surrounding our steam usage. The state of Michigan had just gone through a pretty significant recession, so we began looking for ways to manage that utility demand. We had approximately 4,800 traps with a 26% failure rate. Within five months of launching our steam trap program with Armstrong International, we had achieved simple payback, with a budget of $169,100. In that time, we avoided 100,000 kilo pounds (klbs) of steam and $400,000 in energy and maintenance costs. That comes out to about $750,000 in today’s dollars. Within 6 years, our trap failure rate was reduced to 10% and by 2010, we broke the 5% failure rate and had saved in excess of $4 million. Today, we have a failure rate of around 1.4%, which is almost 20% below the industry average.

Our unparalleled standards have encouraged more than 37 other universities to duplicate efforts and implement their own steam trap management programs modeled after WMU’s success.

What did WMU do in 2012 to address climate change?

Seelman: In 2012 we were among the first universities – if not the first – to make a commitment toward carbon neutrality, and we pledged to reach this by 2065. In 2019, we launched our Carbon Neutrality Committee to research and develop a long-range plan to reduce carbon emissions on campus. As of today, the committee is studying whether the campus can achieve carbon neutrality as early as 2050, and possibly commit to cutting the university’s carbon footprint in half by 2030. The Carbon Neutrality Committee includes a number of faculty, staff and students from across campus to draw on the broad expertise and experience of the university community. The initial work in subcommittees has been focused on greenhouse gas emissions tracking, emissions reduction opportunities, creative funding strategies, communications and student involvement.

It should be noted that WMU has long been a leader in its commitment to sustainability, going back 50 years ago when we became the first university in our state to establish an environmental studies program. Our early climate action efforts place us in a leadership role in higher education, and it’s our responsibility to address this issue head-on and provide an example for others to follow – and that’s exactly what happened in response to our steam trap program.

What is the process like to implement this program? What are some of the major considerations a facility manager needs to think about prior to implementing this system?

Provot: First of all, a program of this magnitude needs to have complete buy-in, both from the top down and bottom up. It is important for your facility management team to not only possess the knowledge and expertise to execute on such a comprehensive program but also understand the importance of their unique role in achieving success. Likewise, the executive team must support the facility staff by providing the resources necessary for success.

It’s important to take a holistic approach that considers the entire steam system, as well as the unique requirements of the facilities and industry. Annual trap surveys to detect failed traps and determine the cause of any failures are perhaps the most important part of the program and will ensure the facilities are performing as energy efficient as possible.

Anything like this program that has some level of specialty has to engage with partners. It’s not about doing a project like this all in-house or having a third-party handle it all. Rather, the answer lies in finding those energy management experts, bringing them together with the in-house facility management team, and getting the best of all minds together to work out a process and challenge each other to achieve the best results possible.