Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
P: (540) 464-7207
F: (540) 464-7443

111 Smith Hall
Lexington, VA 24450

Saving Water – and Natural Gas

FullTextImage/img/@altCadet Carson Towne ’14 (right) works with physical plant personnel to replace a water softener tank located in the heat plant. – VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.

Cadet Intern Seeks to Make Heating Water More Efficient

LEXINGTON, Va. June 20, 2013 – When most cadets take a shower, it’s safe to say that they aren’t thinking in terms of energy production; nor are they contemplating VMI’s costs for hot water.

But Cadet Carson Towne ’14 is spending his summer thinking about just those things – and what’s more, he’s trying to find ways for VMI to reduce its energy costs. Towne, a mechanical engineering major from Mathews County, Va., is a summer intern at the Institute’s heat plant, working under plant supervisor Dave Caldwell.

Like most interns, Towne is doing some routine chores, such as cleaning, organizing supplies, and taking inventory. In addition, though, he’s chosen to tackle an expensive behind-the-scenes problem: the dumping of hot water by the hot water heaters serving Old Barracks and New Barracks, Cocke Hall, and parts of Richardson, Carroll, and Scott Shipp halls.

Caldwell and Towne explained that the hot water heaters are designed to keep the water inside a set temperature range. When the water gets too hot, it is “overboarded,” or dumped, to keep users from getting scalded.

“That’s rather wasteful, so we’re doing a calculation of how much we’re losing and how much that’s costing VMI as a whole,” said Caldwell, who’s worked at the heat plant since 2009.

Conversely, during peak shower times, the hot water system fails to keep pace with demand, leaving cadets with lukewarm or cool showers.

For cadets, the vagaries of the water system are exasperating. For VMI, they’re expensive, as the Institute paid over $800,000 for water and sewer alone in 2012. Natural gas, which the heat plant uses to make steam, cost over $700,000 last year. When electricity is included, the Institute paid over $2.9 million for utilities in 2012.

Towne began his internship during the first week of June. So far, he’s been busy getting numbers on the problem.

“It’s a lot of just taking initial readings, like temperature and pressure, and then finding out how many gallons [the heaters] dump and how many gallons are dumped per day,” he said. “Then you … multiply … to find yearly costs.”

Caldwell said that he’s grateful Towne has chosen to tackle the hot water project, because with only four employees, including himself, at the heat plant, staff hours for problem solving are limited.

“It helps to have another set of eyes looking at something,” Caldwell noted. He said that at this stage of Towne’s research, it’s too soon to tell whether replacing the hot water heaters or retrofitting them will be most cost-effective. He’s hoping for the latter, though, as the hot water heaters are only two years old.

Towne’s interest in energy began at a young age. “I’ve always liked cars,” he commented. And before he came to VMI, he was interested in rocketry, but a mechanical engineering course in thermodynamics shifted his focus to energy production. He now hopes to work for an energy production company after graduating from VMI.

Caldwell noted that Towne was chosen over four other candidates, including a graduate student from James Madison University. While the JMU candidate was well qualified, Caldwell said he chose to go with Towne because of his interest in thermodynamics – and because he’s one of VMI’s own.

“He’s here, and he understands what’s going on at VMI,” said Caldwell. “He understands the schedule. He lives it.”

Towne, meanwhile, says he’s happy to find a way to give back to the Institute.

“I go to VMI,” Towne said. “I like knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and I like helping out. I feel like I can make a difference and make the cadets’ lives a little better.”

–Mary Price