A beating heart is the symbol of life, the core of existence. Yet many do not cherish its vitality.

The Central Energy Facility Heating Plant, at the center of BYU-Idaho’s campus, is the hub of all vital functions, just like a heart. Yet, just like a heart, many do not cherish its centrality.

In 2014, the Heat Plant replaced the old coal production facility from the ’50s and became the source of all heating and cooling systems on the BYU-I campus. The plant produces not only heat and air conditioning, but also electricity.

“Our campus consumed 35 million kilowatt hours of electricity last year,” said Facilities Maintenance and Operations Director Sam Merrick. “We produced 37 million kilowatt hours of electricity last year just from this.”

As manager of the facility for 11 years and a technician for four years before that, Merrick watched the Heat Plant come to life — and he’s watched it sustain the life of campus for almost 10 years.

A normal outlet in any common apartment or home runs about 110 to 120 volts of electricity at around 20 amps. An amp is the amount of force the electricity pushes through the outlet. This amount will run items commonly used, such as hair dryers and microwaves. The power production that comes from the Heat Plant is around 12,700 volts of electricity at 209 amps, producing much more electricity for the campus to use.

A control panel in the heat plant. Photo credit: Chester Chan.
A control panel in the heat plant. Photo credit: Chester Chan.

“The majority of campus is heated with this equipment,” Merrick said.

Not only does the Heat Plant produce the electricity that the campus needs to run, it also produces all of the heat the buildings require. There are three main boilers in the plant that take hot water, heat it up to create steam, and then push that steam out to campus to produce heat.

The smaller boiler produces about 25,000 pounds of steam an hour. This boiler is a tank of water with little tubes that run through the center of it. Flames are pushed down the center of those tubes that boil the water. Exhaust is created, which students can see going out of the top of the building.

One of the three main boilers at the Heat Plant. Photo credit: Olivia Grayson.
One of the three main boilers at the Heat Plant. Photo credit: Olivia Grayson.

The other boiler works in a similar fashion. It preheats the water before it goes into the boiler to gain efficiency. This boiler produces 45,000 pounds of steam an hour. The last boiler, however, works differently. It does not use pipes as a burner, but rather a gas-fired jet engine.

“So, if you look out your airplane window it’s basically a jet engine in here,” Merrick said. “We are taking that jet engine and taking all that exhaust from that jet engine and we are heating all the water with it. Then we are taking the rotation of that jet engine and spinning a generator and creating electricity.”

This boiler is the primary steam producer and is used all year round to heat the campus. This particular boiler produces 20,000 pounds of steam an hour while also creating the electricity needed. To put this into perspective, the BYU-I campus uses 12 to 13 pounds of steam per hour in the summer and about 60 pounds of steam per hour in the winter.

Chance Curr, one of the four boiler operators, watches the equipment in the plant all day long to make sure it is functioning properly.

“I’m just watching for highs and lows,” Curr said. “Like, right now, I’m just trying to keep the boiler happy, keep the steam pressure running the chillers and keep everything cool and hot on campus.”

The buildings on campus change temperatures, using more heating and cooling depending on what it needs at the time. The campus has ups and downs and it’s Curr’s responsibility to make sure the plant follows those ups and downs. Some of the boilers have automatic settings that help the boilers follow that up-and-down pattern. If, for some reason, the boiler can’t meet the demands of campus, the boiler operators start the hot standby boilers to satisfy the needs.

With the beating heart of BYU-I’s campus functioning properly, students can plug in laptops, turn on light switches and sit in warm classrooms. The Heat Plant keeps campus running, sending all the heating and electricity through the veins of campus to meet each student’s immediate need.