Thursday, November 20, 2014

U of I Retrocommissioning Group, "Saving the planet two buildings at a time"

U of I Retrocommissioning Group, "Saving the planet two buildings at a time"

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In a recent commentary on the U of I’s progress toward goals from its Climate Action Plan, I noted that much of the credit for that progress goes to a team from Facilities & Services known as the Retrocommissioning Group. Since then, through conversations on campus and elsewhere, I’ve been reminded that few people know much about the group or the work they do. Given our long-term interests in conserving resources and saving money, that’s too bad, because the people who do retrocommissioning are champions of both.

So let me bring you up to speed.

In a nutshell, retrocommissioning refers to a process of analyzing the energy-dependent systems in a building—heating, ventilation and cooling, as well as lighting—and then doing what’s necessary to get those systems operating as efficiently as possible.

Facilities & Services first formed a team dedicated exclusively to retrocommissioning in 2007. It was composed of five people and led by Karl Helmink an engineer with long experience in heating and cooling. Their tongue-in-cheek slogan then was “Saving the planet one building at a time.” Since then, the group has grown to 20 people and it now operates in two teams, so they’ve updated their slogan to “Saving the planet two buildings at a time.” Both teams include engineers, field technicians, tradesmen and student interns.

The teams typically spend about two months on a building, and they employ a highly systematic approach. Their work entails a thorough analysis of available documentation on mechanical systems by engineers, and a comprehensive investigation of operating conditions, equipment, and more by field technicians and tradesmen. 

Members of the team also confer with representatives from the buildings where they work throughout the process to make sure their needs are met. “When our work is finished,” says Helmink, “they’ve got to be happy with the building”.

One straightforward thing the retrocommissioning teams do is identify maintenance issues that tend to multiply in overlooked places as facilities age—things like clogged ducts, stuck dampers, damaged coils and worn out sensors. Beyond attending to such issues, they also focus on ensuring that lights and heating and cooling are on only as they are needed, rather than around the clock. Toward this end they install occupancy sensors wherever they can.

Such tune-ups can have really amazing impacts.

The greatest reduction in energy use from one year to the next? A whopping 56 percent, achieved at the Admissions and Records Building. But even the average reduction in energy use following retrocommissioning is an amazing 28 percent. And because retrocommissioning has now been conducted at more than 50 campus facilities, the cost savings are really adding up, too. Over the past seven years the work of the Retrocommissioning Group has saved the University more than 22 million dollars on energy costs.

Critical listeners might wonder whether the gains achieved by Retrocommissioning are lost over time; I’m happy to report they are not. That’s because the process also involves adding buildings to a centralized computer system monitored by a team member, who can dispatch crews to fix significant problems as they arise. So, for example, if a valve gets stuck open leaving heat on when it’s not supposed to be, it takes little time for the problem to be discovered.

In fact, Helmink pointed out, problems are often corrected before building users are even aware of them. Kind of makes you wish you could have the Retrocommissioning Group work at your home, doesn’t it?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

November brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

November brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

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The calls of sandhill cranes carry on the wind by some magic. Whether they are flying, and your view of them is obscured by a tree line, or they’re feeding in a harvested cornfield, where their rust-stained gray feathers make them difficult to pick out, you typically hear cranes before you see them.

And hearing sandhill cranes is a great pleasure. They talk quietly among themselves in family units, which include mother, father and one or two young of the year, which are called “colts.” (Colts stand as tall as their parents by Fall, but their plain gray “caps” are distinct from the bright red ones on adults.)

What’s more dramatic, though, is the way cranes call to one another as they collect in larger groups, either in flight or on the ground. To me these calls resonate in a mix that brings together something of pigeons cooing, something of geese honking and something less birdy, too—a stick rattled along serrated ridges on a wood block.

You may know by one means or another that sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds of thousands along the Platte River in western Nebraska during their migration north in the Spring. But did you know there’s scaled down version of that spectacle in western Indiana each Fall, one that’s much more accessible to us? It takes place at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, which is just 60 miles north of Lafayette.

Sandhill cranes that breed in the upper Midwest and central Canada begin gathering at Jasper-Pulaski near the end of September, and their numbers grow until mid- to late November, when they peak at about 20,000. Imagine that—20,000 of these majestic birds together in the same place less than
half a day’s drive from where you are now.

During their stopover in Indiana, the cranes keep a very regular schedule. At night, they roost in marshes at the reserve, where they’re
safe from predators such as coyotes. In the morning, for about a half hour either side of sunrise, they come together to socialize in Goose Pasture, a vast field that’s overlooked by an observation platform.

The cranes then head out into nearby agricultural fields where they spend the day feeding. There they take advantage of corn that was lost in the harvest, as well as a wide range of other foods—everything from plant materials to worms, insects, mice and snakes.

Your best bet for seeing cranes up close is to cruise the gravel roads south of Jasper-Pulaski (carefully, of course, with respect for the people who live there) and pull over quietly to watch them feed.

The real crane spectacle at Jasper-Pulaski takes place in the hour around sunset, as they congregate again at Goose Pasture before heading back to the marshes for the night. At that time flocks pour in from every direction, and the calls of birds already on the ground blend with the calls of birds in the air to create music like none you’ll hear elsewhere.

This gathering also affords great opportunities to see the cranes “dance”; they bow, they jump into the air, they flap their enormous wings and generally wind each other up, then settle down again, sometimes in a wave of activity that ripples across the field.

If you go to see the sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski you’ll definitely want to have binoculars, and if you have access to a spotting scope bring it along, too. And take extra warm clothes. You wouldn’t to be driven from the observation platform by cold before the twilight show is over.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Alligator snapping turtles reintroduced in southern Illinois

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If you’ve ever seen a snapping turtle in Illinois, it was almost certainly a “common snapping turtle.” Common snappers can be found throughout the state, and they’re able to adjust to life in nearly any body of water. This commentary is not about common snapping turtles. It’s about alligator snapping turtles, which are bigger, gnarlier southern cousins of common snapping turtles.

Alligator snappers are distinguished by three ridges of spines on their upper shell and a head that looks huge in proportion to their body. They also have a wicked hooked beak. And they get big, too, bigger than any other freshwater turtle in North America, with top weights in the wild reaching 155 pounds.

[Photo by Eva Kwiatek. Ethan Kessler draws blood from an alligator snapping turtle just before releasing it.]

Alligator snappers prefer life in large rivers like the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash or waters directly connected to them. So they were never widespread in Illinois, which also marks the northern limit of their range. Over the course of the twentieth century, alligator snapping turtle populations in the state were wiped out entirely by habitat alteration and overharvesting. But favorable conditions now exist in enough places to make reintroducing them feasible.

I spoke recently about a project to do just that with two of the people at its forefront, Mike Dreslik, a herpetologist with Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) in Champaign, and Ethan Kessler, who is working toward a master’s degree in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I, with Dreslik as his adviser. Here’s what I learned from them.

The current reintroduction, which involves collaboration with multiple other state and federal agencies, as well as the St. Louis and Peoria zoos, involves a long-term effort. That’s because alligator snapping turtles are long-lived creatures, and they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 11 or more years old.

This summer Dreslik, Kessler and others released a total of 97 alligator snapping turtles in a creek at the southwestern edge of the state. To say those turtles were released, though, tells only a small piece of the story. On the day they were let go, every one got a health checkup, which included a visual exam and blood work. They were also fitted with tiny data loggers that record water temperature, and 62 them had radio transmitters attached to their shells.

With the help of those transmitters, Kessler and company relocated each turtle three times a week through the rest of the field season. Partly this was to keep tabs on the health of the turtles and to see whether they were competent at life in the wild, since nearly all of them were reared in aquariums at hatcheries or zoos. Happily, they really were and only one of the turtles with a radio transmitter died this year.

Additionally, the information gathered in relocating them will help scientists answer important questions about habitat preferences and movements. The surprise on this front came from the biggest of the released turtles, a 16-pounder. He immediately moved nearly a mile upstream to a big logjam, where he then stayed put for the rest of the season.

The answers to questions about movements and habitat preference will, in turn, help to answer a broader one, which has implications for the prospects of other endangered turtle species as well. As Dreslik summed it up, “How do we reintroduce turtles to the wild with the greatest chance of success?”

For now, though, the more pressing concern about Illinois’ new alligator snappers is how well they cope with winter. We’ll check back next spring to see.

Bonus turtle

Explaining this as part of the radio commentary got too convoluted so I left it out there. But INHS herpetologist Chris Phillips came up with a real surprise as he was groping around in deep, murky water to find one of the turtles with a radio transmitter; he found a wild alligator snapping turtle, the first one in the state since 1984.

[Phillips (left), Kessler and native Illinois alligator snapper. Photo by Mike Dreslik.]

As to what exactly that means, the jury is still out. But given the amount of time and effort that has gone into looking for alligator snapping turtles, no one I spoke with was inclined to take it as evidence of some hidden, viable population.