What do you do when a substantial portion of your heating costs is literally going up in the air?

That was the problem faced by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) at its Hilliard Family and Elderly public housing developments. Built in the early 1960s, the four-tower complex received its heat and hot water through underground pipes from the Ickes Steam Plant, located about a half mile away.

While the plant was well maintained and efficient, the underground piping had seriously deteriorated, sprouting numerous leaks that reduced heating efficiency to 40%. You could literally see the leaks in winter as steam billowed from openings in the street.

To correct this inefficiency and give Hilliard residents a more reliable source of heat and hot water, CHA brought together a unique team to execute this project budgeted at $15 million.

Solutions for the problem were developed by EUA Citizens Conservation Services, the multifamily housing unit of EUA Cogenex Corp., a Lowell, MA, energy services company that devises and implements utility-savings projects in large residential properties. It also develops financing opportunities for projects.

EUA’s plans were then executed by Exodus Coalition Construction Joint Venture, a general contractor owned and operated by CHA residents. Exodus is headed by president Titus Kerby, who was a 10-year veteran of the construction trades before starting the contracting firm in 1996 with partner Carl Latimer, and with an assist from CHA.

A resident of CHA’s Lathrob Homes, Kirby also heads his complex’s Residential Management Council and serves on the CHA Advisory Board.

The solution: Decentralization

The solution devised by EUA was to decentralize the Hilliard complex’s heating and hot water system, as it was deemed too costly to repair all the underground steam piping.

The complex was decoupled from the steam plant and 20 high-efficiency boilers were installed in three rooms in the Hilliard basement.

EUA selected natural gas-fired Fulton boilers for the project, as they delivered more than 90% energy efficiency and were the right size to fit the available basement space, which has low ceilings, said Bill Bartovis, EUA spokesman.

The existing heat-delivery systems in Hilliard were then adapted to work with these boilers. Heat exchangers were eliminated so the boilers could deliver steam directly to radiant heaters in each apartment. Hot water delivery systems remained the same.

Redundancy also was built into the system. Should one boiler fail, another automatically goes on-line to provide uninterrupted heat for each apartment. This feature should solve the problems CHA experienced in the winter of 1999, when the failure of heating systems forced the evacuation of residents at several public housing complexes.

According to Bartovis, no CHA residents were displaced during the work, which was completed in early November, 1999. Some residents were “briefly inconvenienced” as work was performed on steam piping running through apartment floors and ceilings.

No boiler room

Decentralizing the Hilliard heating and hot water systems did present some problems, Exodus chief Kerby said.

“Hilliard had no boiler room, so we had to convert existing space to house the on-site boilers,” Kerby noted. “And then there was the matter of getting the boilers into the buildings.

“The doors on the Hilliard property were only large enough to accommodate a mattress,” he said. “We had to create a temporary opening to get the boilers inside. To ensure that structural integrity of the buildings was maintained, we had a structural engineer present to oversee creation of the larger opening. We then had to lower the boilers into the basement through an elevator shaft.

“Other than that, the job offered no problems,” Kerby stated.

Decentralization of the Hilliard systems has so far resulted in big savings for CHA. Natural gas usage at the complex is down 50%, while hot water use is down 65%. Both resulted from eliminating use of the leaking underground pipes that once connected Hilliard to the steam plant.

The resulting cash savings to CHA will enable it to amortize the cost of installing the boilers and related work within 12 years, according to a spokesman for CHA chairwoman Susan Gist Gilliam.

Residents of the Hilliard complex also are pleased with the work, reporting that their apartments are maintaining a comfortable level of warmth, something that didn’t occur when they were connected to the Ickes Steam Plant the previous winter.

A similar project

Since completing the Hilliard project, EUA and Exodus have moved on to a similar project at another CHA public housing site, Wentworth Gardens.

At this site, individual boilers at each of Wentworth Gardens’ five buildings are replacing the main on-site boiler providing heat and hot water. By eliminating reliance on underground piping to get steam to each building, CHA hopes for similar energy savings.

The Wentworth Garden project is expected to be completed in April, although Kerby reported in mid-January that the job was ahead of schedule.

In the future, CHA also is looking into adding central air conditioning to public housing sites that are being converted from low-income to mixed-income complexes, including both Hilliard and Wentworth Gardens.

CHA admits that there could be a public backlash to adding air conditioning to public housing, but that this feature will make the developments more attractive to middle-income people that CHA wants to lure to these sites. Providing residents with a cool place to stay during hot summer days may also help reduce crime near these sites, a spokesman said.

If air conditioning is added, additional plumbing also could be added to provide chilled water to all apartments.

The Hilliard and Wentworth Garden projects are only a small part of a $350 million program launched last year by CHA to rehabilitate public housing in Chicago. Current plans call for the upgrading of 15 public housing sites and the demolition of five high-rise structures that once housed 17,000 people. CHA now plans to concentrate on low-rise housing, which better fits into city neighborhoods, and in the conversion of most public housing into mixed-income sites, to avoid locating low-income people in only one location where they associate only with those in their economic class.

Kerby said he hopes that the company’s participation in the two heating upgrade projects will boost its fortunes, and allow it to move into mainstream contracting. Exodus is now soliciting non-CHA jobs in six states surrounding Chicago.