Service technician Kirk Brownlie (standing) goes over some last-minute preparation with stationary engineer Dennis Sanders (wearing overalls) concerning one of the three 1,000-ton absorption chillers used to cool America’s Center and the Edward Jones Dome (below), site of the NCAA Final Four April 2-4. (Photos by David Preston.)
ST. LOUIS – Because it will be the site of the NCAA men's basketball finals, here's betting the action will be hot and heavy inside the Edward Jones Dome April 2-4.

But Brian McMurtry is banking on the inside environment of this spacious facility being nothing but cool and comfortable next weekend. To put it in the language of ESPN television college hoops announcer Dick Vitale, McMurtry wants it to be "nothing but a slam dunk, baby!"

McMurtry, who is the director of operations for America's Center (which has the Edward Jones Dome under its administrative umbrella), is the man everyone is turning to in the days leading up to the tournament's final weekend.

McMurtry and his maintenance entourage are responsible for the heating and cooling of America's Center, which not only includes the dome, but the adjoining Cervantes Convention Center and St. Louis Executive Conference Center.

In a few days, the sprawling complex will have an overflow of visitors and college alumni who will be sweating out the hotly contested battles to determine the top team in NCAA men's basketball.

Of course, McMurtry would rather not use the description "sweating out." Over the past few months, his team has been gearing up the complex's cooling plants to make sure occupants are comfortable in any of the five convention halls or inside the 1.7-million-square-foot Edward Jones Dome, which is the home of the St. Louis Rams of the National Football League.

"Our seasonal startup has been much more interesting," confessed McMurtry, who admitted "the heat" has been applied from above - and everywhere else in between.

But, the affable McMurtry said his crew is ready for the bright lights and the heat that comes with them.

"After the Super Bowl, this probably has the most national attendance," he said, referring to the Final Four. "The fact is, this is a big event. Most, if not all, of the attendees are going to be from out of town. They are here for a four-day minimum ... "

Taking a breath of fresh air, he summarized his thoughts this way: "We want to nail this one."

Brian McMurtry (with arms folded), director of operations for America’s Center, directs a conference designed to make sure the environment inside the Edward Jones Dome is comfortable for the Final Four. Sitting to McMurtry’s left is Mike Painter, building environment manager for Johnson Controls.

Absorption Challenges

From an HVAC standpoint, the biggest challenge to date has been prepping two of the three 1,000-ton absorption chillers, which have been in place since 1993, when the "Southern expansion," as McMurtry terms it, took place at America's Center.

The normal sequence of maintenance events is to get one absorption chiller up and running in March, then one in April, and the last one in May.

To be on the safe side, McMurtry has instructed Mike Painter to have two of the three chillers available, if need be, before the opening tipoff of the first semifinal matchup. Painter is a building environment manager who is contracted through Johnson Controls, which has a mechanical service contract with America's Center.

"When they had the Southern expansion, that's when they threw us a curve," explained McMurtry. "With that [expansion] came three 1,000-ton absorption machines. And, to be quite honest, they don't work well in our application. In our application, you have an event, you air condition the space - and when the event moves out, you shut 'em down."

The hardest part, he said, is getting the absorption chillers back up-to-speed quickly, after they have been shut down for some time.

"Absorption machines work absolutely great in hospitals," he offered. "You turn 'em on and you let them run, 24/7. Our biggest headache is getting the absorption machines started up."

According to the director of operations, the city bought into absorption because "at that time, the mayor believed we were going to have ‘trash-to-energy.'" As McMurtry put it, "We were going to be able to burn our trash, turn it into steam, and use the steam to run not only our buildings, but some other buildings downtown."

Unfortunately, "trash-to-energy never happened," he said. "With the absorption machines, they get shut down and the battle becomes to bring them back up. It seems like the past couple of years, every year there is one of them that causes some castigation."

As part of his maintenance plans, Painter has been having two flanges repaired per day. Most of the work has been completed by pipe fitters contracted out by Johnson Controls.

Meanwhile, Painter has been happy with service technician Kirk Brownlie, who has been responsible for starting up the chillers and is responsible for maintaining them throughout the year.

"It's because of his conscientious efforts that not only are the absorption chillers running as well as they are, but the three centrifugal chillers [900 tons], too," said Painter of Brownlie. "Kirk also maintains seven centrifugal chillers for the dome."

While Brownlie keeps up the preventive maintenance and service on the chillers, there are three stationary engineers (employed by America's Center) who monitor and service the chillers on a daily basis. They are Frank Martychenko, Mark Ekonrod, and Dennis Sanders.

Helping along are Bill Smith ("My do-everything guy," according to Painter) and temperature control operator Karen Carroll, who has been with Johnson Controls for 16 years. Smith started with Johnson Controls in 1984. He has been at America's Center for the last seven years.

The 43-year-old Painter came aboard December of last year, replacing Hollis Nowland, who stepped down after nearly 40 years of service for Johnson Controls, most being within the confines of America's Center.

"I still call Newland a lot," said Painter. "I'm following a guy who walked on water."

Stationary engineer Dennis Sanders (left) and service technician Kirk Brownlie (right) take a look at the purge pump on one of the absorption chillers.

Let The Games Begin

At least with the absorption chillers, there is flexibility built into the system, said McMurtry. Along with the addition of the dome in 1995 came 8,000 more tons of cooling - all electric.

"We knew 8,000 tons was not going to be needed all of the time; conceivably, we could have had this plant just sitting there," said McMurtry. "I went to my boss and I asked why don't we put an interconnect between the two buildings that could go either way - and, actually be a redundant system to either one. And, that's what they did."

He called the interconnect "a Godsend."

"During those August [NFL] games, if you lose a 1,200-ton electric chiller, you are in trouble," explained McMurtry.

"In the past, we have brought more than a thousand tons of cooling over from the convention center to the dome. We've also done it the other way. When we had a good deal with steam, we'd actually base-load the dome with the absorption [cooling], because it was cheaper than the electric machines."

Now that the price of steam has more than doubled, McMurtry thinks the cost of each utility is nearly equal.

"I like having the two systems," he said. "Before, there was always one that was always cheaper. In the future, I have to think one will be cheaper again. This gives us flexibility."

Even though the weather can be unpredictable in St. Louis in April, McMurtry will faint if the dome needs its design-day 8,000 tons (of cooling) next weekend.

"If we do, we really have an aberration in April," he smiled.

And, with 60,000-plus yelling fans in the seats, he does not see the need to kick on the gas-fired boilers for the dome on April 2 or 4.

"When you bring in that many people, it tends to heat itself," he said.

While this may be the first Final Four at the Edward Jones Dome, it previously has hosted two NCAA regionals, as well as a first-round and a second-round game. Not only that, it hosted the pope in January 1999. And, each time, all went without a hot or cold hitch.

"We've done regionals. We've done first- or second-round games, but they are not the same by any stretch of the imagination," admitted McMurtry. "We certainly know what is expected from us."

The more difficult task is selecting which will be the last team standing Monday evening, April 4.

Publication date: 03/28/2005