The Men of Dartmouth’s Steam Plant

The control panel at the heart of Dartmouth’s heating needs. (Image courtesy of Benjamin M. Riley.)By Benjamin M. Riley

Dartmouth — long ago described by its most famous son as a “small college.” That was once true. With well over a hundred buildings belonging to the College on its campus, however, the ‘small’ appellation can only be applied to class size, most certainly not physical size. Like all buildings, Dartmouth’s many dorms, classrooms, sports facilities, and all the rest need heating and electricity – who would have thought? Despite the self-evident need for a campus heating system, it isn’t obvious to most students exactly how those buildings that we all live in, learn in, and hang out in are heated and powered.

And so I set out on a quest to discover the answer to one of campus’ most pressing questions. I sought knowledge of how exactly that building nearly no one ever ventures into, that most industrial vestige of times past — our campus steam plant — operates. Seek and ye shall find, as they say. An outsider by all accounts, a steam plant rube, even I was welcomed into the steam plant’s gracious, metaphorical steel arms.

Walking into the plant, tucked behind New Hampshire Hall and Topliff, I had no idea what to expect. Would I be dismissed as a useless interloper? Quite the contrary.  Having set up a tour through the Facilities, Operations, and Management website, I arrived promptly at 2 P.M. excited to uncover the mysteries that lay in the pipes and was quickly greeted by William “Bill” Riehl, who told me that I would have to wait as they were dealing with a minor “issue.” Later I found out that the issue was a problem in one of the four turbines; aside from the slight delay, I would have never even known of the problem. 

As it turned out, the delay was fortuitous, as it gave me a chance to chance to chat with Terry, he of a most robust goatee, reaching down past the collar of his shirt. Terry, like several of the fourteen employees of Dartmouth’s steam plant is former military: specifically, Terry supervised a nuclear biotech striker submarine for the US Navy. Soft spoken and entirely low-key, Terry is representative of the quiet professionalism of every steam plant employee.

This professionalism became quite clear when Bill returned from dealing with the turbine issue, and proceeded to blow my mind with facts and figures about the operation of the plant. Built in 1898 under President Tucker, Dartmouth’s steam plant claims to be the oldest continuously operating heating plant in the United States. 

Whether that fact is true or not (Dartmouth has what can only be described as a hyperbolic tendency when it comes to longevity) is hardly the point. The point is that the steam plant is representative of a true kind of craftsmanship. The steam plant produces tangible things, while most of the other arms of this college merely bandy ideas. Of course, the Review is the first to defend the non-practical aspects of a college. But it must also be said that nothing at this school exists without the power from the plant. Able to produce seven megawatts of electricity and up to three hundred and ten thousand pounds of steam from its four turbines, the steam plant is the engine that keeps the College running.

From the beginning of the tour, I slowly began to grasp the inherently vast complexities of operating the plant. All the operators are skilled electricians, machinists, and ultimately engineers. Though many lack formal schooling in engineering, the systems that they must maintain – four distinct turbines, all from different eras and using different equipment – are as complex as any system operated on campus. 

The employees of the steam plant not only manage the plant itself; they are also charged with monitoring all of the energy expenditures throughout the campus. A control room features interactive screens that allow problems to be dealt with quickly enough so as not to affect the output of power and heat to campus. Bill stresses that the plant operates strictly on a demand-based system and is a model of monetary efficiency. 

Dartmouth burns cruder Number Six oil, rather than a more refined Number Two, which is used in most households and costs around a dollar more per gallon. Ninety percent of the steam condensate is recollected and reused. Rather than rely on outside maintenance workers to service the plant, all operators have been internally trained to service it themselves, so that an impressive ninety-five percent of maintenance is done in-house. With built in redundancies, the plant runs with model efficiency twenty-four hours a day and three hundred and sixty five days a year. 

The real story about the steam plant, however, is about the people who day in and day out toil to make sure it runs without a hitch. As he took me through the nooks and crannies of the plant, under pipes and in control rooms, next to boilers and in front of gauges, Bill showed off his jacket lapel, which carries a pin denoting his fifteen years of service to the College. Before coming up to Hanover, Bill worked in the trash disposal business in central Connecticut and before that he graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He came to Dartmouth on a whim: after seeing an ad in the Hartford Courant for the position of plant manager, he decided to apply and has been here ever since.

Bill noted that perhaps the only reason he is manager instead of one of his colleagues is his college education, but he was quick to point out just how collaborative the work at the steam plant is. He told me that any one of his coworkers could do his job, and vice-versa, and that titles mean nothing in the plant. That the work gets done well — and it does — is the only motivating factor at the plant.

Indeed, what is perhaps most impressive about the job that Bill and his colleagues do is that it is done so admirably in spite of the inherent unfairness of the steam plant employees’ pay. The unfairness? Bill and the rest of the steam plant workers are part of the local SEIU chapter, like the rest of the service employees at Dartmouth. Unlike many of the rest of these employees — custodians, maintenance workers et al.— sentiment at the steam plant is hardly pro-union. 

Bill views with displeasure the inherent lack of meritocracy at the SEIU. As part of a union of service employees, the steam plant staff is required to share a “pie of money” with every other sector of service staff, many of whom, though they provide a valuable service to the college, lack both the skills and value of the steam plant employees. Since these other groups far outnumber the mere fourteen steam plant employees, and since unions operate on a ‘one-for-all and all-for-one’ model, the steam employees are left with wages comparable to the rest of the staff. 

Of course, Bill and the rest of his colleagues don’t complain about this – they have far too much courtesy and pride. That information has to be coaxed slowly. But, in a certain sense, their reward is something more intangible: the knowledge that they have positively contributed to the fabric of this college in ways that most will never know or appreciate.  

And so Bill and the rest of his team plug on, doing their daily tasks the best they can without fanfare.