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Fort Detrick plans to shed pipelines

Sunday - 2/26/2012, 2:00am  ET

The pipes snake along a short stretch of Rosemont Avenue and criss-cross Fort Detrick like a line to the past, blending into the scenery until you no longer notice them.

Nearly 3.3 miles of above-ground silver metal pipe loop over roads and along Detrick's streets to deliver heat and sterilization to 35 buildings on the post -- along with an additional 5.1 miles underground. It's an odd juxtaposition, linking an antiquated system to a campus whose tenants' work focuses in large part on groundbreaking research and development in vaccines, bioterrorism and emerging technologies to help soldiers on the battlefield.

And "they're ugly," Detrick Facilities Director Larry Potter said.

"Every time I see the steam lines, I think of the old industrial plants," he said.

Those unsightly pipes may soon be a thing of the past. The post is going forward with plans to decentralize its aging boiler system -- most of it more than 30 years old -- beginning as early as summer 2013, Potter said.

"It will involve eliminating most of the overhead steam lines and it will then be a small, efficient heating plant in each building," he said. "Instead of taking steam and distributing it all over the place, each building will have its own little gas heating plant."

That decentralization fits into a larger overall plan to reduce energy use and waste at Detrick and create renewable energy on post, the first steps in becoming a NetZero Army installation by 2020.

The garrison was selected in April to be one of five pilot sites in the NetZero energy and waste programs. To attain NetZero for energy, Detrick must create as much energy on post as it consumes. To be a NetZero waste location, it must eliminate landfill use by reducing waste and increasing recycling and composting.

Detrick's six boilers were installed two at a time in 1953, 1990 and 2004 and use natural gas to pump out nearly 400,000 pounds of steam per hour, according to a NetZero environmental assessment issued by Detrick in July. The entire infrastructure loses as much as 5,000 pounds of steam per hour, the report said.

Those 8.4 miles of unsightly pipe plus the boilers add up to a lot of loss. As steam travels from building to building, it cools along the way; leaks in the system mean only about 60 percent of it reaches its intended destination, Potter said.

"That's one of the reasons why it's one of our primary projects, because it really helps us so much toward our energy goals," he said.

Potter would not say how much the project might cost because it is still in the procurement process. But he estimated it could save as much as $2 million annually.

One of the only reasons the boiler plant exists is because of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Potter said. Officials are moving USAMRIID and its labs to Detrick's Central Utilities Plant, providing more impetus to shut down the old system. That plant, which came online in spring 2008, provides steam and chilled water and acts as a surge protector, evening out the flow of power coming from the energy grid so fluctuations do not damage sensitive equipment. Detrick's National Interagency Biodefense Campus is already supplied by that plant.

"As we do that, the load on our central boiler plant almost goes to zero, so it becomes so inefficient that we've got to find a way to shut it down," Potter said.

Proponents say decentralization will undoubtedly save money and increase Detrick's efficiency; it might also improve the view for at least one local neighbor. Frederick County Animal Control Director Harold Domer has had a view of the pipes from his office on Rosemont Avenue for nine years.

"It's not an eyesore to me," Domer said. "You become accustomed, like water towers."

Would Domer notice if the pipes were to disappear?

"I would say, I'd probably notice if they were gone," he said. "They are very noticeable. They're just not offensive."