It’s not unusual to see an operator just sitting around at Cherry Point’s Central Heating Plant.

It’s not unusual to see an operator just sitting around at Cherry Point’s Central Heating Plant.

“Relaxed and sitting is the preferred stance for an operator,” said Paul Filzen, facilities maintenance manager at one of the air station’s oldest and most vital operations. “When we walk through this plant, my operators will be relaxed and sitting. If the operators are running around, something’s wrong.”

One might expect to see a bunch of soot-caked faces at a plant that burns 26,800 tons of coal in a year, but the interior of the 70-year-old plant is remarkably pristine. The workers will likely be monitoring computer screens that indicate all phases of the plant’s operation.

The plant produces steam that courses through some 30 miles of distribution piping around the core of the base, providing heat and energy. Its largest customer is the Fleet Readiness Center East aircraft repair and maintenance facility.

Parts of the plant are routed with what seems like an endless series of pipes in various sizes running this way and that. It all makes sense to the 23 people who work around the clock in five-man shifts to keep the steam flowing.

They don’t all stay clean, though.

Two coal handlers out back unload rail cars and stack the coal with conveyors and front-end loaders. They are used to getting dirty just unloading coal and delivering it to the boiler. Another dirty job is cleaning the plant boilers and the 86 package boilers that serve outlying buildings, but that is only done in the summer when the need for heat is low and most of the units have been shut down.

The peak time for operation of the plant is in December and January, according to operations manager Milton Rolison. 

“When it’s the absolute coldest is our peak. Mother Nature determines our peak,” he said.

The plant has two coal burning units and two fuel oil burning units.

“Our number one fuel of choice is coal. Our backup fuel is number two fuel oil,” Filzen said.

The reason is clear. Burning fuel oil is costly, around $30,000 more per day.

“That’s an additional cost,” Filzen said.

The plant, located on Langley Road off A Street, is easy to find with its massive stockpile of coal. About 22 railcars bring in about 2,000 tons of coal from Kentucky and West Virginia every few days.

Utilities Director Alvin Fonville said the coal costs $142 per ton, with the plant spending about $3.8 million for coal each year.

The coal comes in chunks ranging in size from about a half inch to 1 1/2 inches. The plant burns 90 percent of the coal, leaving about 10 percent in fine gray ash, which is taken and dumped at the Craven County landfill located in Tuscarora.

Filzen said the plant of today is considerably more efficient than when it opened in 1943 and is even better than when he arrived in 1995.

He said the plant invested money in its condensate return system, which is the water that returns to the plant after the steam has lost much of its heat. The steam leaves the plant at 449 degrees and returns as water at about 130 degrees.

Filzen said in 1995 that about five percent of condensate was returned to the plant, but that is now at 60 to 65 percent.

“What it means is you’re returning back water that’s 100 and something degrees that you turn back into steam, so it takes less energy to turn it back into steam,” he said. “It’s also got the impurities removed so it’s less chemicals, so you are saving a lot of money the more condensate that you can get.

“Steam leaves the building. It gets wherever it’s going. Typically it goes through a heat exchanger, whether it’s going for hot water in the barracks, or going to the mess hall or going to the depot. As the process removes the heat from the steam, it condenses back into water, then it comes back to the plant. A pound of water, a pound of steam.”

More condensate returning to the plant saves fuel, chemical and water costs.

“We’ve reduced the amount of water that we use from the water plant tremendously,” Filzen said. “We try to cut costs in any way we can. We operate it safely and efficiently.”

Though coal plants have a reputation of being bad for the environment, Filzen said the Cherry Point plant recaptures emissions so nothing potentially harmful is released into the air.

Filzen likes to remind workers at the plant that steam is dangerous.

“Steam is a very serious business,” Filzen said. “If you have a problem at the water plant, people get wet. If you get a problem at the sewer plant, people get stinky. If you have a problem at this plant, people get hurt seriously. They get burned. So this is a very serious business. Since I've been here, I don’t remember anyone getting burned or anything like that.”