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August 12, 2014 - Infrastructure Innovations at USA Medical Center
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USA Medical Center's Director of Facilities, Lawrence Gardner

Using a $750,000 federal grant and about $300,000 in hospital funds, University of South Alabama Medical Center has installed the backbone of a campus-wide Building Automation System and replaced its 50-year-old boiler system with new equipment that’s on track to pay for itself in four years for the overall investment and less than two years for the Medical Center’s investment.

The two old boilers — originally designed for use on ships in the 1950s and not exactly new technology when they were installed — had hung together by hook and crook for nearly 50 years when Lawrence Gardner arrived as director of facilities management in 2009.

The two old boilers — installed before the first floor slab was poured for the new hospital in the early 1960s — are still there in the subbasement at the east end of the building, but the units are now backup to the new technology that has been put in place.

Every salesman who dreamed of winning a contract to upgrade a 50-year-old system got a courteous and attentive hearing as the Facilities team tried to learn all they could about what was available in the marketplace, Gardner recalls. Facilities team members would brainstorm about possible solutions to the systems that were so expensive to operate.

And in the meantime, every time staff members called to say that their floor was too hot or too cold, a technician trekked to the complainants’ locale to try to determine whether one individual needed a sweater or whether the system was malfunctioning, then poked around in the ceiling to find the trouble.

In any facilities operation, you sometimes have bad news days. MC’s bad news day happened back about four years ago, on an August day when the temperature reached its peak for the year. The chiller plant failed. And then the backup chiller wouldn’t switch on.

“We knew we were in big trouble,” Gardner recalls. The team located a trailered 1,000-ton chiller unit in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, the inside temperature was beginning to climb. They called in Donaghey Mechanical to begin the preparations to connect the rental unit, and Donaghey, in turn, brought in workers from all its projects and others besides to prepare 14-inch steel pipe to handle a different chiller, even cutting a hole in the wall so electrical cables could be run from the breakers to the rental unit. Meanwhile, the inside temperature of the hospital climbed yet higher.

Hospital staff began preparations to divert trauma patients to other facilities and took initial steps toward moving hospitalized patients to other hospitals.

By the time the temporary system was operational, round about 2 a.m., the temperature inside the Medical Center had peaked at 88 degrees. Within days, parts were on order for one chiller and a replacement chiller was ordered and installed.

Capital funds for new mechanical systems are always tough to find, but hospital staff saw the possibility of an opportunity when President Obama’s economic stimulus plan earmarked Department of Energy funds for energy savings projects. The hospital facilities staff members were elated, until they realized that the funds were available only to state, county and municipal agencies — with nothing for higher education, Gardner recalls.

Then Gardner found a provision allowing cities to bundle their grant requests into a single energy-saving project in existing facilities that serve their residents. He questioned officials with ADECA, the state’s Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which was responsible for the DOE applications in Alabama, and they agreed that that if the Medical Center could team with cities in its service area, the cities could apply on the Center’s behalf.

Alas, the City of Mobile already had plans, Gardner said, but nearby cities of Saraland, Creola and Citronelle did not and they agreed to submit the grant application on behalf of the hospital.

“When you’re the trauma center and the burn center, and there’s somebody in an industrial accident or an auto accident, this is where they come,” says Gardner, adding that the nearby cities recognize and appreciate the care offered at the Medical Center.

The application was submitted in 2010, bundling two projects aimed to make heating and cooling the Medical Center more energy efficient.

First is a Building Automation System that manages all heating and cooling for the hospital, with capability to expand to all other Medical Center campus buildings. From their facilities offices, staff can monitor heating and cooling systems via the Siemens Apogee System, with notifications if there are anomalies. Key staff can even check in from their home computers. With the BAS, facilities staff can quickly find most malfunctions.

Second is a heat recovery chiller that uses energy from water heated in the cooling system to heat the building in winter, replacing the two gas-fired boilers.

The heat recovery chiller is a great example of learning from vendors, Gardner says. An Alabama Power representative, listening to the hospital staff laments, put them in touch with Birmingham engineer Mark Luna, an expert in devising systems to capture and reuse energy.

The new heat recovery system — a fraction of the size once used to make 350-degree water for laundry and steam — now heats water to 180 degrees for heating the building and a smaller unit is in place to heat water to 120 degrees for washing and bathing, says Facilities Assistant Director Tim Morris.

Together, the two projects represent the largest energy-efficiency project funded through the ADECA-Department of Energy program.

But it’s already reaping a big payoff, Gardner says.

First, it has cut natural gas consumption and emissions. And it has cut the gas bill so much that some folks think they’ve misunderstood.

But the numbers are spectacular, Gardner says.

From 2004 to 2009, the hospital spent an average of $252,000 a year for natural gas. During the first year of the chiller’s service, the hospital gas bill was less than $40,000. Natural gas is now used only for cooking and for producing steam for sterilization equipment.

Every dollar saved on heating and cooling is a dollar available to provide better patient care, Gardner says.

About the University of South Alabama Medical Center

The University of South Alabama Medical Center offers patient-centered care to the central Gulf Coast with unique services including Mobile’s only Level I Trauma Center and Regional Burn Center, plus Centers of Excellence in stroke care and cardiovascular diseases, and a wide range of acute care services.

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