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Keeping the Lights On

To an uninformed observer, Bob Bublitz looks like he might be in the belly of a ship. He sits behind an array of computer monitors in the control room of Yale’s Central Power Plant on Tower Parkway, watching red and green indicators blink at him like boats passing in the night. Bublitz has a white sailor’s beard, cast-iron shoulders, and forearms as thick as pipes. He served six years in the Navy, attaining the rank of Petty Officer second class by the time he left. When he first joined at eighteen, eager to continue the Bublitz family tradition of military service, he wanted to be a machinist. The only opening was for a boiler technician. “So into the pit I went,” he says. 

Working amid steam vapor in the hull of a navy ship, Bublitz was reminded of the steampunk adventurers in the novels of Jules Verne and the boiler room where Jack and Rose share a kiss in the Titanic. He was in love. And the object of his passion was steam-powered machinery. 

He stayed in the business of harnessing energy from steam after he was honourably discharged—first, in a boiler room in a Hartford firearms factory, then at Yale. He hasn’t been in the Navy for more than two and a half decades now. And we are not in the belly of a ship. We are in the 65,000-square-foot plant that keeps the lights on, the heat running, and the air chilled for the 25,000-odd people who live and work on Yale’s central campus and Science Hill. 

At 7 a.m., as students and faculty stir in their beds, flip on the lights and turn on the shower, the engineers and mechanics and oilers at the plant come in for their shifts. Those who worked the night shift shuffle bleary-eyed out of the plant. On Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and New Year’s, every hour, every day of the year, every year, the machinery churns on.

Outside the control room, the gas turbine grumbles constantly and loudly (at around ninety decibels), forcing the plant workers to stuff their ears with foam plugs to prevent hearing damage. Plumes of pale steam waft between serpentine pipes. “Victory Energy, Full Steam Ahead!” is emblazoned on the side of a boiler. The plant compresses and burns natural gas that is piped in, producing electricity and waste heat in the process. The waste heat boils water into ‘free steam’ in these boilers. Pregnant with energy, the highly-pressurized steam flows over and spins the turbine’s blades. The steam feeds everything—the heaters in the winter and chillers for air-conditioning in the summer. Delicate cables housed in silver metal conduits branch out from the plant beneath the streets of New Haven, around cemeteries and dorm rooms, carrying electricity to bedside lamps and lecture halls.

No one even noticed the explosion. “All the students slept through the night with a smile on their face,” Bublitz said.

When Bublitz walks through the plant, he listens for problems. After twenty-five years of working here, he knows the sounds of the machinery like a parent knows their child’s cries. Pings are comforting; gurgling is not a good sign. The sound he dislikes most of all is water hammer—the banging noise produced when steam barrelling through pipes contains water droplets that collide with difficult-to-navigate pipe corners. Like bullets in a body, these errant water particles can seriously damage the equipment.

The turbines and gas compressors and boilers are housed within a neo-Gothic brick structure that is over a century old. Natural light floods the ground floor, where most of the vital machinery hums along. Elegant floor to ceiling windows belie the fact that the building is explosion-proof, a feature that is particularly important given that the plant is surrounded on all sides by people, living and dead. Bublitz’s colleague jokes that we are sitting on ancient burial grounds: across the road is Grove Street Cemetery; the bodies of the “unholy” who died by suicide are rumoured to have been buried underneath at the edge of the cemetery, underneath our very feet.

Bublitz tells me wistfully about the artistry of the century-old architecture. When he arrived, the plant still proudly bore the original pumps, brass whistles, drip canisters, and brick-set Bigelow boilers. Wrought iron handrails lined the machinery. The year was 1994, but the atmosphere recalled the golden age of steam, the age of Nikola Tesla’s electrical dreams.

In those days, the boilers weren’t lit by the flip of a switch but by a guy with a torch. In the mornings, Bublitz’s team would send someone to light four of the boilers with a six-foot steel rod wrapped in asbestos cloth, drenched in diesel oil and fired off with a zippo lighter.

“Instead of a computer judging when to add more fuel or air or dampers we did it with our brains,” Bublitz tells me.

Thermally inert and non-flammable, asbestos seemed like a match made in heaven for insulating boilers. But between 1979 and 2000, hundreds of deaths due to asbestosis and mesothelioma, a type of cancer, were reported in Connecticut. The  Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance lists Yale power plants as one of the job sites where you may have been exposed to harmful asbestos. Bublitz insists that as long as the asbestos was soaked, there was no danger—it’s when the toxic chemical turns into a dust or powder form that you have to be worried. 

Bublitz’s recollections seem almost mythic to me as I walk through the power plant on a Wednesday morning in September. The asbestos torches and brick-set boilers have been replaced by computerized signal systems and Italian-made gas turbines. The fluorescent strip lights lining the walkways will soon make way for more environmentally-friendly LED lighting. The only continuity is steam. For as long as these energy-charged vapours continue to spin turbines, Bob Bublitz’s steampunk dream hums on. 

In the plant, there is no room for error. In the winter, the stakes are even higher. One day in January 2008, it was 7 degrees and bitterly cold. A line ruptured in Gas Turbine Number Two. Bublitz, at that point the oiler, was in charge of turning valves and checking equipment. He was warming up two back-up boilers when an alarm pierced the frigid air. His shift partner went to investigate. Before he even got to the unit, it exploded. 

But unlike a lot of companies that operate with a tight bottom-line, Yale spends money to have extensive back-up systems. “Within seconds of the explosion, the built-in fire suppression system kicked in and the fire was out. By the time the fire company came, there was no actual fire,” Bublitz recalls. 

The Yalies and faculty who depend on the plant never give it a second thought, in much the same way that we never consider the unceasing palpitations of our own hearts.  

There was another problem, however: all three turbines were out of commission. Bublitz and the team fired up two temporary boilers to keep the heat and electricity running to campus. Working for hours through the night, they saved valuable equipment from freezing and averted a possible crisis of hypothermia. No one even noticed the explosion. “All the students slept through the night with a smile on their face,” Bublitz said. I could find no news on the event dating back to the time, although the plant records confirm that it happened. For Bublitz, it is a point of pride that his work is unnoticed. It means that nothing has gone wrong.

The plant manager takes me up several flights of stairs to the roof, where water spray swirls in white clouds. Eight chiller towers remove heat from the air-conditioner water returning from campus. Two brick smokestacks reach like armadillo tails to the pale summer sky. In the age of catalytic converters, the name “smokestack” doesn’t mean what it used to; I can see no smoke billowing from these towers.

The floor vibrates like the chest of a great beast. Big white fans on the roof pull the water toward the sky to dissipate the heat, before sending hundreds of gallons back down across chevron corrugated plates. I am standing before a great industrial waterfall.

From the roof, I can see the lamp-lit windows of the Sterling Memorial Library stacks and students zipping on bicycles between their classes. The Yalies and faculty who depend on the plant never give it a second thought, in much the same way that we never consider the unceasing palpitations of our own hearts.  

“Though we are never seen, we know that we have an important function,” Bublitz tells me later. “I may never be a great writer or politician or lawyer, but I bet I kept a few warm and the light on they studied by.” Behind the tall brick walls of the plant, seated in the control room, Bublitz monitors the machinery at the core of Yale’s operations. When dusk falls, his shift will end and his colleagues will take his place to keep the flame burning through the night. He is hidden, exactly as he thinks he should be. 

Ko Lyn Cheang is a junior in Grace Hopper College.

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