Exploring Rice's steam tunnels: Scenes from a guided tour

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Geneva Vest

This summer, Rice’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management (ASCEM) interns took a guided tour of the underground campus steam tunnels in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the infrastructure that heats, cools, and powers Rice University.

Our guide was Elmer Whitehead, a mechanical engineer & project manager who works on the ASCEM team. He oversees various projects related to Rice’s utility plants, energy distribution system, and buildings to ensure that utilities are delivered to campus safely and efficiently.

Elmer made sure we saw various sides of the 3-mile underground operation, starting with the Central Plant section of the tunnels beneath the Mechanical Laboratory. This section was installed in 1912, Rice’s inaugural year, but still looks pretty good for its age!

Here, we have IT data wires and electrical conduits on the left and chilled water pipes on the right. The steam tunnels are lit by a mix of incandescent (pictured here) and fluorescent light bulbs. As incandescent lights break, they are replaced by more efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Notice the chair facing the wall...how did that get there?

Here is a close-up of the mechanical chaos of the old tunnels. Staff often navigate around these knots of piping to reach remote regions of the underground network.

This cooling tower welcomed us above ground at the South Plant near Wiess College. This particular cooling tower employs an efficient system that reuses water from air handling units at the BioScience Research Collaborative, and thus reduces the consumption of fresh water from public utilities. This tower also conserves energy by utilizing variable frequency drives to power the fans at a range of speeds instead of just with an on-off setting.

Not everything at the South Plant is utilitarian. This glass and metal structure, known as the “Crystal Campanile,” currently towers over the South Plants as a “three-quarter million dollar architectural piece,” according to Elmer. The tower serves as a landmark now, but is also designed to accommodate an exhaust stack, should the plant add natural gas co-generation capabilities in the future.

Inside the South Plant the pipes are clearly labeled. The high pressure steam pipe conveys heat to exchangers in campus buildings and returns steam condensate (hot water) to the South Plant. The steam condensate is converted to steam again to be resent to the buildings.

Below the South Plant are newer tunnels that began operation in 2009, nearly a century after Rice’s first tunnels. To the right are chilled water pipes and to the left are pressurized steam and steam condensate pipes. Every pipe is heavily insulated to conserve the content’s temperature.

Throughout the tunnels are submarine doors for protection from flooding, a necessary measure in Houston. This door opens to an old network of tunnels beneath South Servery.

Elmer wanted to show us this tunnel in particular because of its unique interior decoration...

Instead of removing the graffiti, FE&P allows student art to accumulate over the years. This “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” reference was an intern favorite.

Also hidden in the tunnels are murals commemorating students’ times at Rice. Several names are scrawled across these walls from months, years, and decades ago. If you want to leave your mark, though, it must be with a guide like Elmer who understands the dangers of the tunnels.