Long shot of central plant building and cooling tower. (All photos provided by Frank Vitone.)

Variable-frequency drives for chill water pumps.
Over 110? F and no a/c. That’s what Pierce College students and faculty endured for more than five decades. Critical areas, such as computer rooms and the library, out of necessity, were fitted with air-conditioning, and some administration offices were also kept cool, but budget constraints left classroom windows and doors wide open when temperatures soared.

Now, thanks to a new hybrid chiller system, this community college in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of Los Angeles, is on its way to campus-wide comfort year-round.

Back view of centrifugal chiller.


In years past, summer classes were often moved to air-conditioned areas, held outdoors or cancelled due to the heat.

“On hot days, I’d get so many calls to see if space was available for classes in air-conditioned environments,” says Frank Vitone, Pierce College hvac supervisor for the past 10 years. “The students were all fanning themselves. It was a real uncomfortable way to learn.”

In the late 1990s, president Darroch Young headed a task force that assessed the campus’s future needs. Among the recommendations was the installation of energy-efficient lighting and air-conditioned classrooms.

Consulting mechanical engineering firm, Kevin A. Smola and Associates of Pasadena, helped develop a comprehensive cooling plan. Only scattered buildings had a/c, which were generally old, inefficient room units and small package units. Where there were duct systems, they were typically dual-duct and constant-volume.

The absorption chiller in place at Pierce College.


“Most hybrids are half-gas, half-electricity all the time,” says Smola. “Which one the system uses is determined by time of day. During the peak period for electricity, gas is used, and vice versa. But for the Pierce College system, I developed an equation to determine which chiller to use, based on energy prices from the utilities. There are only about 20 hybrid systems in the country, but this is the only one I know of that determines which chiller to use.”

Jim Lowe, systems manager with RSD/Total Control of Lake Forest, CA, which furnished the controls and inputted the program according to Smola’s specifications, says, “I hadn’t written this type of program before — one that involves time-of-day usage rates and cost of utilities.”

Though the system is capable of switching between gas and electric on “an hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute basis,” Smola says, “we’re a long way from having instantaneous response to changing prices because the utilities only provide rates on a daily basis. If the utilities provided that information, we’d act on it. It’s fairly simple to make the conversion, but not if we can’t anticipate price fluctuations. Right now, all we have to work with is the current rate for the day.”

But that’s plenty enough for Vitone, who is not phased by California’s energy crisis. “The higher the prices go,” he says, “the more money we save.”

EMS panel located in central plant.


“It’s piped in series, not in parallel,” says Smola. “By doing that, it’s much easier to know which chiller picks up the majority of the load, and we can put a minimum load on the absorption machine when both have to run simultaneously.”

Project manager Mike Hart of All Temperatures Controlled, which served as the general, as well as the electrical/mechanical, contractor, says, “Originally, all the piping was to be on the tops of canopies, but we decided to put it underground — almost a mile of pipe. What’s amazing is that we completed the entire project without disrupting classes by working a lot of nights and weekends.”

Eight thousand lights — 24,000 light bulbs — were swapped out. The new low-wattage, high-efficiency lighting resulted in “tremendous savings,” says Smola.

Vitone concurs: “Last summer our electricity costs went up only $100 a month, but we added 900 tons of a/c!”

“The electrical retrofit helped pay for the a/c,” says Smola, and a $57,000 gas company rebate further sweetened the deal.

All lights and a/c are set to occupancy levels. If the campus is closed, they’re off, regardless of what happens. If the campus is open, but no one is in the room, they’re on standby. And if class is in session, they’re on.

“Typically, it’s set at 74 degrees, plus or minus a degree or two,” says Smola. “When the classroom isn’t occupied, it’s given a wider tolerance — five or six extra degrees in both directions. At first, Frank worked with a tolerance of plus or minus 10 degrees, but he felt that it took too long to get the room back in control. I suggested he keep moving that number until no one complains.

“When we converted from double-duct to vav, we used the existing equipment. Typically, you take out the old and put in the new, but using what was there saved a couple million dollars.

“My firm has been doing this type of conversion since 1994. I know of only one other company in the greater Los Angeles area that does this, and they only started three years ago.”

In regard to the new carbon dioxide sensors, Smola said if the air quality is good inside the building, “we can reduce the amount of outside air brought inside, thereby saving energy and money.

“When we designed the system, we used temperatures from the on-campus weather station rather than temperatures from nearby LA. The weather at Pierce College can get to 110, while the surrounding areas are 102. Typically, Pierce is seven to 10 degrees higher than the rest of the Valley.”

But no longer does that make students and faculty hot and bothered because now when temperatures soar, they’re sitting cool.

Sidebar: College’s Plans to Generate its Own Power

“We’re planning an on-site generator of our own power,” says hvac supervisor for Pierce College, Frank Vitone. “Then we’ll be able to cut loose from the DWP (Department of Water and Power).”

Vitone envisions fuel cells and micro-turbines allowing the “use of waste heat to heat buildings in the winter, and eventually to air-condition them in the summer. As such, we’ll become one of the leaders in the community as far as energy savings are concerned.”

To date, the college has hired an engineering consulting firm to “do the value engineering and lay out the cost savings in a report.”

Pierce College currently spends approximately $750,000 on electricity each year. “If we generate our own power, we anticipate a net savings of $30,000 a month — from day one!”

The estimated cost of the equipment and installation to pull this off is $4 million. The money the college is now paying to the electric company would instead be paid to the equipment manufacturer to pay off the loan. In about seven years, Vitone says, the cost of the system would be completely paid off.

“It’s really a no-brainer,” he says. “There’s so much instability with the utility companies that we don’t know where prices are going. This way, we lock in our costs, and we can sell our excess power to our sister colleges — Valley College in Van Nuys and Mission College in Sylmar.”

The means to self-sufficiency are “already in place,” Vitone says. “We have a 30,000-gallon propane tank that’s a back-up at present. In case our gas supply is cut off during an earthquake, we can keep the campus open, converting the propane to natural gas, electricity and hot water. As technology evolves, we’ll be able to convert that to a/c too. A micro-turbine will run the excess heat through the absorption chiller to generate chilled water to air-condition buildings in the summer, just as that excess heat can be used to heat buildings in the winter.”

Vitone is just as excited about the academic aspects of such a system as he is about its energy efficiency and profit potential.

“The interesting part,” he says, “ is that we can incorporate this into the academics here. Students could take a look at fuel cells and the micro-turbine. It could become a course of its own. There aren’t many places you can study energy devices that are online. When this project finally comes through, it’s going to be a good one!”

Facts, Figures, and Specs for Pierce College Project

Campus specs:25 buildings (approx. 200,000 sq ft) on almost 500 acresHvac design:Kevin Smola, Kevin A. Smola and Associates, Pasadena, CAHvac installation/general contractor:All Temperatures Controlled, Inc., Chatsworth, CAControls supplier and software program designer:RSD/Total Control, Lake Forest, CAOverall cost:$6 million for the initial phase; additional $3 million for Phase 2Mechanical equipment involved:
  • one 312-ton Trane centrifugal chiller
  • one 440-ton Trane absorption chiller
  • Seven boilers totaling more than 10,350,000 BTU, all low NOx types
  • two condenser water pumps totaling 75 hp
  • two primary chilled water pumps totaling 60 hp
  • two secondary chilled water pumps totaling 250 hp
  • 21 air-handling units (three new and 18 existing) totaling 204,500 cfm
  • Air handlers were converted from constant volume systems (double duct and multi-zone) to variable air volume, double duct systems.
  • Return air quality is monitored and used to control the volume of outside air, allowing, at times, to reduce the required volume of outside air and thereby save energy.
  • The classrooms are monitored for occupancy: when not in use, the temperature tolerance is enlarged to save energy.
  • A fume hood makeup air system was installed to provide tempered makeup air for the fume hoods.
  • Construction notes:
  • Charlie Imboden, general superintendent
  • 10 field sheet metal technicians during peak installation
  • 10 field piping technicians during peak installation (Richard Hayden, piping detailer)
  • Publication date: 07/02/2001