By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
Insulators wrap insulation around heating, cooling and ventilation pipes. But imagine wrapping insulation around a pump the size of a small car, or around a 100-foot wide and 85-foot high water tank? It’s hard even to wrap one’s mind around that. But that was the job of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 16 members working on the Stanford Energy Systems Innovations Project (SESI). The project involves replacing a steam heating system with a warm water system. SESI is part of Sustainable Stanford, the university’s initiative to lower its carbon emissions and impact on the environment. The project involves installing 20 miles of pipe to heat the Stanford campus and the Stanford University Medical Center.
The hospital insulation is particularly demanding, as it must conform with OSHPD (Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development) Hospital Facilities Seismic Safety Act, which is intended to enable the hospital to continue functioning during a natural disaster.
The general contractor is Whiting-Turner. Local 16 members are working for Restec, the subcontractor insulating the mechanical equipment, and PCI, Performance Contracting Incorporated, the subcontractor insulating the water towers.
–Voices From the Union–
The big pipes take a lot more steps to cover. They are too big for one piece. You have to go around the pipe with different segments. It can take four or five pieces to go around a 22-inch pipe. You need to stagger them and hold them in place with a bungee cord, and then we finish it off with a metal jacket around the top. We need to fill all the voids and cracks to make sure no air gets in the pipe and they are 100 percent sealed. Safety is also an issue, and you have to be tied off.
I like the nice, smooth feel of rubber. It cuts clean and smooth. We use a Dexter boning knife. You need something with a long, thin, sharp blade that won’t pull on the rubber, especially with the new rubber that’s a little more dense.
The large size of the pipes on this job are a marvelous challenge. Usually we’ll get up to 12 inches. On this job they got 42-inch ones. You need to work with a partner. I like working with other people. It gets you through the day and you get to learn things. Everybody has a different style. You might be doing this big 36-inch 90-degree bend, and one guy might have a little bit better way to do it.
Before insulating, I did odd jobs. I worked as a quality control inspector at a company that built sensors. I’d look through a microscope inspecting the capacitors and other electrical pats. It was pretty tedious. Then I had a couple young kids and needed a job that was steady and paid well. I had a buddy in the trade and he told me about it.
I like getting up every day and knowing I have something to do.
General Foreman, Restec
So far we have installed 16,000 linear feet of pipe and are about halfway through the job.
The University is replacing steam radiators with water pumps. Warm water heating is more efficient. It is a pretty cool project. The HRP, Heat Recovery Plant, recovers the heat that is usually expelled through the exhaust tower and uses it to heat up the water. It costs a lot of money to build a system like this, but the energy savings will pay for itself.
This is a great job. It really keeps the guys challenged. We have to insulate pumps the size of a Volkswagen. I’ve never done pumps that big. Each one can take about five days to get all the rubber on them. Basically it involves setting up a pattern, cutting one inch urethane rubber sheets, and adhering them to a pump. It’s time-consuming and tedious work. You have to make sure there are no gaps whatsoever. Not everyone has the patience and concentration. I have my set guys who can do it. The guys who can’t, I put them on something else.
I’m learning the mechanical side of rubbering. It’s totally different than anything else I’ve ever done.
Before this I worked in customer service and never got to work with my hands the way we do here. So far I’ve worked at maybe 15 or 20 different places.
My favorite place was Sony. They were doing video game testing, and I’ve always been a fan of video games. Another one was Apple, where they were putting in green screen. I got to see the back end of that. It’s been pretty neat. I’d never be able to get in a place like that on my own.
A friend I worked with at Jiffy Lube said he was going to sign up at the union hall and asked if I wanted to go with him, so I said sure. Three years later they called me. I think about 300 people were on the list ahead of me. It was worth waiting for three years. This is a huge step up from changing oil at Jiffy Lube.
I’ve only been out here about a month. I like the guys I work with. They want to do good quality work, as opposed to just putting it on.
The trick to doing good work is having a lot of experience. It starts with training in the apprentice school and then getting hands-on experience working with guys who have done it before.
The best part is the people. All the different characters you get to deal with every day on different jobs, and not just the insulators – the carpenters, the plumbers, the electricians. You get to talk to guys from all over the world and find out all about their lives.
You’re on a job for three months and then you meet a whole new cast of characters. I remember one guy recently from Bosnia, with his unique accent.
It can be hard being an apprentice at my age. I’m 42 years old, and this is my third try. Both of my uncles are 30-year veterans, and my grandfather was in the trade before that.
My first time was in 2000, but it didn’t take, and I tried different sorts of work in between. I did earthquake retrofitting, electronics, and a lot of other stuff. There was no future in any of it. Not enough money to sustain myself.
This time I’m working with a great group of guys. We have fun working together. It makes you want to come back the next day. This time I feel like I finally found a home.
General Foreman for PCI
This job has been a good experience. I had up to 16 guys up here, and now we’re down to seven. It’s been a little trying sometimes to manage all those guys.
The trick to running that many guys is taking it day by day, instead of tearing your hair out. I got a pretty good crew. I pick and choose. I look for someone who’s dependable, sharp, has good hand skills and listens. At PCI we do industrial, commercial and marine installation. The system here is a little bit different. I really like the geometry of the work. It’s pretty challenging. Some of it is common sense, but other times you have to really use your math skills.
We wrap cables around the tank first, and then the panels go up, and bands come through the cables and hook onto the panels and secure the panels to the tank. Then you go through and double seam the panels to each other and rivet where they overlap. Then we finish by caulking everything out. The orange ones, the warm water tanks, over there, are 84-feet tall and 67-feet in diameter, and the brown ones, the chilled water, are 84-feet tall and 100-feet in diameter. It can take a month, give or take a week, to do each tank, depending on how involved they are. And these are pretty involved. The bottom of the tanks have flashing and anchor bolts that have to be covered. We’ve been working out here for three months.
When we started out, only three of us knew the system, and we trained everyone else. They are a great crew. It’s all about working with the right guys and tools.
I do a lot of the rubber work. On this job there are a lot of different items that need to be rubbered that I’ve never applied rubber to before. The pumps are very challenging. I’ve never encountered chilled water pumps this big. There are no square edges on the pumps, so everything has to be free handed.
The trick to rubber work is not being afraid to try new things and to be able to experiment. It takes a lot of cutting and measuring and drawing. You find some starting points and start cutting, try the insulation, and see how it fits.