When the University of Michigan moved from its original location in Detroit to its “new” home in Ann Arbor in 1837, construction of the U-M’s first campus buildings began. The first university buildings were erected in 1840. During the late 1800’s three separate heating plants were built to provide heat to the new campus buildings. In 1897, the first electrical generating units were installed as gas illumination began to be replaced by electricity.
By 1911, the university had expanded beyond the capacities of the original heating plants. A central plant was designed and built in 1914 to service the expanding campus. This plant became known as the Central Power Plant.
The Central Power Plant was equipped with a 500 kilowatt, 2,300 volt alternating current generator for electrical power and eight 400 brake horsepower vertical tube boilers for heating. These boilers were heated with coal, delivered to the plant by a small locomotive towing a coal car, and shoveled by hand by staff members known as stokers or “boiler rats.”
Much of today’s modern medical campus sits on top of the tracks that were used to deliver coal to the plant.
Feeding the boilers was dirty, dangerous work. Yet even as far back as the turn of the century, photos of the men who staffed the plant show a tightly knit group with close personal and community ties—attributes that persist today.
The delivery of steam—generated by the boilers and used to heat the growing campus—was accomplished by a system of tunnels dug by hand by day laborers. Today, this network of underground tunnels spans the central campus, crossing below the Diag and continuing to serve as the method of conveyance for steam heat in many campus buildings.
Soon after its construction, additional technology was added to the Central Power Plant to provide hot water to all university buildings. Three men were needed per shift to run the Power Plant: an engineer, a stoker, and a waterboy.
In 1924, a 250-foot chimney was added to the plant, along with 598,000 cubic feet of space. Areas were constructed to increase coal storage and add heating and water softening technology.
The Central Power Plant continued to expand over the years to meet the needs of the university. Today, it is considered a model of its type for its ability to provide the most efficient and cost-effective energy possible.
The plant generates 45,000 kilowatts (13,200 volts) of electricity, powering 130 campus buildings with electricity. It provides heat and hot water services to nearly 100 campus buildings.
Despite the plant’s continuing growth and expansion, the number of staff required per shift to operate the facility is unchanged from a hundred years ago. Today’s plant operators include a senior operating engineer and two shift engineers, running two 12-hour shifts per day for round-the-clock service to the campus community.
Forty staff members work in the power house today; some with family ties to the power plant and the university that go back to the early 1900s.
The plant is a noisy and imposing place with turbines and generators operating 24/7. Visitors are offered ear protection, but the din and vibration coming from the generators and boilers are nonetheless unnerving. A visitor can easily get lost among the colossal machinery. The only quiet places are the control room, a large room filled with computers and wall-to-wall digital and analog monitoring equipment, a conference and lunch room, and a couple small administrative offices at the south end of the building.
Throughout the power generation areas, the floors are spotlessly clean.
Plant History Preserved
Operations Superintendent Mike Pepper, 57, has worked at the Central Power Plant for 34 years. A wiry, animated “character,” he is also the plant’s self-styled historian. He maintains a collection of images and gives a fascinating oral history of the plant’s staff and the familial relationships that in some cases connect current workers and previous generations of staff to the boiler rats and engineers of a bygone era.
“Pepper,” as he prefers to be known by coworkers, was instrumental in providing the images featured here.
Today’s Central Power Plant is a co-generation combined-cycle power house in which high-pressure steam is pushed through a turbine, similar to a jet engine, to generate more than two-thirds of the electricity needed to supply central campus, along with steam heat and hot water. Many large research universities use this type of process, says Pepper.
The technology is efficient, reduces emissions, and produces cleaner energy at less cost.
U-M’s plant is considered a model among large universities, says Pepper. In 2002, the University of Michigan was the first university to receive the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Award—an honor he proudly points out as yet another important milestone in the plant’s one-hundred-year history.
Daryl Hurst has written account of his father Russell Hurst’s days driving the coal yard engine for the University of Michigan Railroad. Read his story is here.
— Wendy Frisch