MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
Turning the knob on a thermostat or the hot water value in a shower may seem simple, but the process involved with making the heat is a highly complicated one. With temperatures dropping below freezing, heat is a commodity personnel aboard Cherry Point need but shouldn’t take for granted.
The steps that go into heating the air station are complex and can even possibly be dangerous for the individuals responsible for running and maintaining the air station’s central heating plant. Nevertheless, the fruit of their efforts are relished each day by personnel who enjoy a hot shower or a toasty room in the winter.
The plant provides tens of thousands of pounds of steam to heat the air station each day. The high demand on Cherry Point for heating requires the plant to use a system of burning large amounts of coal to generate steam heat. During winter, oil is used as a supplemental heating source.
Milton Rolison, the boiler plant operator supervisor for the plant, is responsible for the facility, its personnel, the steam distribution systems and the condensate return system used to recycle unused steam back into the boilers for reuse. Rolison has worked at the plant since 1991.
“This year is one of the coldest that we have had in this area in the last 20 years,” Rolison said. We have to make sure we produce enough steam to meet the heating demand for the entire air station throughout the winter season.”
Workers operate the plant 24-hours a day in shifts to ensure the facility runs smoothly. Blankenship said the crews are responsible for nearly every facet of the plant’s operations, including regulating steam output, keeping track of the temperature, and testing chemical levels of the water inside the boilers to ensure the ash left behind from burning coal is sent swiftly through the system and deposited in the appropriate reservoir.
“We are tasked with providing heat for all the air station’s barracks, hangars and the mess hall,” said Blankenship. “We have to be here at all times constantly taking readings and keeping up the steam production. We also have at least two maintenance mechanics on hand around the clock to fix any malfunctions that occur.”
The whole heating process begins when 11 train cars loaded with 100 tons of coal, each one shipped from either Cincinnati or West Virginia, arrive at the air station’s coal yard. There, the coal is either taken off the rail cars via a conveyor system or fed through grates underground.
During the winter, however, the coal often gets wet and freezes into massive chunks inside the cars, which makes feeding it through the grating system extremely challenging. That’s when coal handlers like Darryl Russell use heavy machinery to break up the coal, guaranteeing it gets fed through the grating.
“During the warmer months it usually takes about 30 minutes to fully unload a coal car. In the winter it can take up to two hours,” Russell said. “Sometimes there are chunks as big as cars that have to be broken up.”
After the coal has fallen through to the underground conveyor system it makes its way into the plant where it is stored in huge bunkers and used to heat boilers that generate the steam that heats the various parts of the air station.
Rolison said the plant faces several challenges throughout the year, including making sure there is an adequate supply of coal, maintaining some of the outdated machinery, and modernizing the plant and making sure the plant’s emissions are compliant with North Carolina environmental regulations. Ash generated from the burning coal is sent to a reservoir via a ventilation system to keep the smoke emissions from the plant’s smoke stacks free of excess debris.
After the steam is made, it is sent out to various steam distribution sites located around the air station where it is then pumped to heat nearly every building on Cherry Point.
Regardless of Mother Nature’s plans, Marines and Sailors will keep warm and cozy aboard the air station due to the vigilance of the central heating plant’s workers.
“We have a group of very hard workers here,” Rolison said.