Saying that Princeton University is nice-looking is about as controversial as admitting that you think Monet’s Water Lilies are kind of pretty. But if someone blindfolded you, shoved you in the backseat of a van, and drove you down to the parking lots just past Baker Rink before driving away, you might, upon removing the blindfold, think you were in New Haven. What the hell is that factory down by the parking lot? I must have missed Princeton’s industrial revolution amidst all the chatter about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vail Bloom.

I was filled with trepidation on the trip from my dorm to The Factory. It was a journey into a different world. I fancied myself in transit from the Forbesian utopia of golf courses and private bathrooms to a hell of smokestacks, cement surfaces, and manual labor. I was Ryan Atwood in one of those going-back-to-Chino episodes. I could almost hear Death Cab for Cutie and see the color scheme go flat and gray. I passed New South, Baker Rink, MacMillan. Finally, I arrived at the hinterland of the parking area.

Upon entering the plant, I was warmly greeted by Ted Borer, who as it turns out, is not “head of the Factory,” but the plant manager of Princeton’s primary energy facility. Borer quickly and amenably agreed to an interview. He told me he works with the “chief and assistant chief engineers” on management issues, and also “oversees the work of outside contractors.”

Borer is involved in engineering and project management. Right now, he’s overseeing the construction of the water plant expansion. He manages the budget and schedule, ascertains that designs are appropriate and thoroughly tested, and makes sure that the operators are trained and prepared to work with the new systems. According to Borer, “The job sometimes involves difficult working conditions, noise, long hours, and extremes of temperature, but there is a strong atmosphere of camaraderie and a lot of pride in knowing that we’re providing critical utilities to the campus.”

The Factory, it turns out, is actually a chilled water plant, which supplies cooling water for the Princeton campus. “The water is primarily used for air-conditioning and de-humidification,” Borer said.

The plant is also used to cool specialized research and electronic equipment such as electron microscopes, magnetic resonance imaging machines, lasers, and CAT-scan machines. The water circulation system at Princeton is a “closed loop,” and comes back from the campus and enters the plant at about fifty-six degrees Fahrenheit. The inside of the plant is then chilled to forty-one degrees and pumped back out. The heat from the chillers is released into the atmosphere through the evaporation of water in the cooling tower.

The campus is expanding; projects such as Whitman College, the Science Library, and future chemistry buildings are either underway or in the planning stages. As a result, Borer told me, “more cooling capacity is necessary.”

Indeed, the plant will be undergoing construction and expansion beginning in March of 2005 and will expand about twelve thousand square feet. Most of the area is equipment space, but it will also include a control room, a break room, a bathroom, and a small office. The project involves adding a new building with two new chillers, upon which chiller capacity “will reach five thousand tons of cooling.” The project will add five cooling towers, four large heat exchangers, and an improved system of pumps that will allow for the transport of water at ten thousand gallons per minute. The new plant facilities will be fully integrated with the existing system. A new control system will also “improve the organization of the plant,” according to Borer.

The most significant addition to the plant will be the construction of a thermal storage tank. The thermal storage is, in essence, “a very large tank of chilled water’ Borer told me. The tank is eighty feet in diameter and seventy feet high, but twenty feet of the height is below grade. This enormous tank will increase the project’s scope to 10,000 tons of new capacity.

The thermal storage tank will also enable the University to save quite a bit of money. With thermal storage, the University can buy electricity at night when it’s very inexpensive. The electric chillers of the plant will cool the water in the tank down to 32 degrees. Then, during the day, when power is expensive, the water stored (and already cooled) in the tank will serve as a source of cooling for the campus. Fewer chillers and cooling towers will have to be employed.

The chilled water plant is staffed by 23 operators, a chief, and an assistant chief – people at every stage in their careers. Several are just out of school or the military; a few are close to retirement. Ted Borer has been at the plant for over ten years; before that, he spent ten years working for a large electric utility.

Borer told me: “The plant is in constant operation – three hundred sixty-five days a year, twenty-four hours a day.” Minimum staff is three people, but on weekends, up to six additional people are on duty. Operators rotate through operations and maintenance roles, and “everyone gets experience in every area.” On-the-job training and even classroom education are important aspects of employment. Indeed, operators are required to have specialized training and to obtain licenses from the state.

An operator’s role, in simplest terms, involves “starting and stopping equipment in order to support the campus needs in the most cost-effective manner.” The price of electricity fluctuates heavily, even during the course of a day, and natural gas and oil prices change on a daily basis. The operators use a computer program to advise them on whether to purchase or generate electricity, whether to run electric or steam-driven chillers, and whether to burn oil or natural gas.

Even when the appropriate equipment is running, Princeton’s energy demands vary. Operators are constantly monitoring the equipment, recording data, and verifying that the plant is running as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The chief and assistant chief oversee and manage the operation and the staff of the plant. Although true emergencies are rare, it’s not uncommon that a sudden change will require the immediate attention and judgment of the plant’s operators.

Borer explained what might cause a potential crisis: “A car could hit a utility pole off campus, causing University power to shut down. This might shut down the plant’s generator, which could cause all or a portion of the campus to lose power. The operator would have to restore power as quickly and as safely as possible. Under extreme weather conditions, equipment at the plant could overheat and freeze. A boiler or a chiller could also shut down. The operator must respond efficiently so that Princeton’s buildings stay heated and the researchers get the utilities they need.”

Here’s to the Homer Simpsons of Princeton University: the plant managers who really keep this place running while President Tilghman sleeps at night.