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From Blue Whale to Green Future

The crane used to transport and install the new chiller at Vancouver General Hospital.

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Vancouver Coastal Health moves its cooling strategy forward at Vancouver General Hospital

In the early days of 2023, the “blue whale” chiller – an enormous steam-driven cooling unit – exited Vancouver General Hospital’s service elevator in pieces.

In May, a few short months later, streets were closed, walls were dismantled, and a colossal crane had only a few inches to spare on each side as it hoisted a brand-new, low-carbon electric chiller into the hospital’s mechanical room.

With the new electric chiller now fully operational, the hospital’s energy consumption and carbon emissions are greatly reduced: 520 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year with an estimated 13,000 tonnes reduction over the life of this chiller.

Old chiller also known as the ‘blue whale’
New chiller installed in May 2023 at Vancouver General Hospital

The impressive effort is a flagship initiative in the Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) first cooling strategy. Initially developed in 2018 and renewed in 2022, the strategy highlights the urgent need for more reliable and energy-efficient cooling systems to ensure the comfort of both patients and staff in a changing climate, as well as reduce the health authority’s carbon footprint. A key tactic of the strategy is replacing outdated equipment with proven technologies that improve operations, are highly efficient, and reduce emissions and climate risks. Replacing Vancouver General Hospital’s steam chiller was a top priority.

Our old steam chiller was not just enormous but also an energy drain,” Eric Sutton, Sr. Facilities and Maintenance (FMO) Manager at Vancouver General Hospital explains. “As it aged, it became increasingly costly to operate and challenging to repair.”

Nicknamed the “blue whale,” the previous unit had struggled to meet the demands of the hospital’s extensive campus, which requires a peak cooling capacity of around 3,000 tons to support critical acute care services across seven facilities.

The Energy and Environmental Sustainability team’s early engagement with VCH’s FMO team and detailed energy audits laid the groundwork for the upgrade to an electric chiller. The audits identified the energy and emission reduction opportunities and strengthened the business case, which led to significant external funding from utility partners.

Once the old chiller was removed, the project team worked to prepare all the electrical and mechanical connections and other infrastructure for the new low-carbon electric chiller. Over the next several months, the chiller was then carefully positioned, connected and commissioned. This involved advanced engineering work to integrate the chiller into the existing cooling loop, including the installation of new piping, wiring and control systems, and then rigorously tested to meet operational standards.

This type of project illustrates the value of the Vancouver General Hospital FMO team. Connecting a new critical piece of equipment to existing infrastructure is a challenge and required a systems lens and the sites team’s knowledge to inform the design and support a successful project.

The FMO team is essential to the success of all infrastructure projects, but that is just the beginning,” says Kori Jones, Director, Energy & Emissions at VCH, “This team now operates and maintains the chiller and all the equipment connected to the cooling plant going forward. A high-performing cooling plant needs a high-performing team on-site to achieve long-term value.”

Like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, this resourceful project team conquered their whale, not with obsession, but with collaboration, expertise and a vision for a low-carbon future.