By Joe Cantwell
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Modular central plants (MCPs) are emerging as smart, efficient options to traditional “stick-built” mechanical rooms. These freestanding, self-contained units are up to 15% less expensive to build than conventional utility plants.
MCPs offer reduced risk, because they are pre engineered, designed, built, and tested by experts in a quality controlled environment. Plus, MCPs are compact, often requiring just two thirds the space of a conventional plant. That leaves more space available for revenue generating operations and offers today’s facility managers (fms) the reduced risk and increased flexibility they demand.
For all these reasons, MCPs are an attractive alternative to traditional builds. And as the U.S. economy begins to show signs of recovery, the benefits of MCPs will become increasingly clear in four specific markets poised for growth.
The population is aging and living longer. Healthcare fms must plan for that future growth without compromising present service levels. The key is flexibility. As campuses grow or the demands of existing buildings increase, MCPs will give hospitals the ability to add modules easily with little to no disruption in service. MCPs can also be moved to make way for future construction or, in the case of consolidation, to move capacity to another location.
That same flexibility allows hospitals to address mounting financial challenges as well. In an environment of declining reimbursements, increasing bad debt, and difficulty in accessing capital due to tight credit markets, MCPs give hospitals the ability to plan for the future but build only what is needed today.
And aesthetically, today’s modular plants have come a long way. MCPs now sport custom paint colors and can be designed to match existing siding, brick, wood, or stone. Exterior panels can even be made to control sound for acoustically sensitive applications (such as hospitals), where noise must be kept to a minimum and where patient satisfaction is critical.
The U.S. data center industry is in the midst of a major growth period. One survey conducted by Digital Realty Trust indicated that 83% of the large firms surveyed in North America were planning to expand their data center facilities in the next 12 to 24 months. [Source: Digital Realty Trust, Inc., March 3, 2010.]
MCPs are perfectly positioned to address the challenges posed by data center development. Modular technology can grow with the business, allowing fms to plan for the future but build and pay for only what is needed now.
MCPs can also be designed to meet the specific uptime and redundancy requirements for Tier I to Tier IV data center certifications. They can be configured to incorporate features essential for data centers such as power interruption remedies and quick restart capabilities.
These plants are also pre engineered, designed, built, and tested by experts in a quality controlled environment. Because 80% of the work is done in-house, the risk of delays or failure during startup is minimized.
College enrollment rates are at an all time high. According to a recent U.S. Labor Department report, the rate has been trending up for decades and is now continuing to rise, in part, because the poor job market is encouraging more people to pursue higher education. Campuses are having to stretch their cooling capacity to accommodate increased enrollment.
MCPs are able to deliver the flexibility today’s educational institutions require. Cooling capacity can be added easily when needed, and because MCP footprints are compact, the units require less of the valuable real estate conventional stick built plants demand. By locating MCPs outdoors, interior spaces such as basements can be freed up for use as classrooms or for extracurricular activities.
Perhaps most importantly, MCPs can be built quickly. Project completion times are reduced by as much as 40% compared to stick built plants. And because MCPs arrive pre built, tested, and ready to start up, they can easily be commissioned during slower summer months.
Although the U.S. economy may be showing slight signs of recovery, businesses of all sizes remain under pressure to cut costs and increase efficiencies. Modular plants offer fms a cost-effective cooling option. MCPs are manufactured off site in a controlled environment, free from weather interruptions or the impact of delays from other on-site conditions. As a result, these mechanical rooms can cost up to 10% to 15% less than a conventional build, leaving more dollars available for revenue generating activities.
MCPs also offer increased serviceability. While the MCP layout is relatively compact, it is carefully configured for ease of access, operation, and maintenance with a floor plan that allows multiple service technicians to work in the same area simultaneously. Many of today’s MCPs offer features such as pump and chiller hoist rails, wide service doors, removable wall panels, and overhead roof hatches.
And finally, MCPs may be easier for custodial and maintenance staff to keep clean (compared to conventional plants). Inside an MCP, lipped draining trays under the condensers eliminate cross contamination from one module to another. In addition, all surfaces are steel plate or aluminum compared to concrete surfaces of a conventional build.
Making The Most Of MCPs
In these four markets poised for growth, MCPs offer a cost-effective, flexible, efficient cooling option. And while the merits of MCPs are impressive in their own right, the benefits are magnified when MCPs are incorporated into a plant designed for energy efficiency. When combined with building management systems that monitor energy usage, and energy efficient equipment such as chillers with variable speed drives, MCPs help fms create and maintain comfortable, safe, efficient, and sustainable environments and provide 24/7/365 reliability.
Cantwell is marketing manager of Johnson Controls Rental and Modular Solutions. He has been with York and Johnson Controls for 15 years.
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