The man who saved Georgetown works underground — well, sometimes anyway. His office lies beneath the Southwest Quadrangle, but he often leaves to do his rounds, checking on the staff of Georgetown’s Heating and Cooling Plant and monitoring the campus infrastructure of heat, air conditioning, light and power.
His name is Xavier Rivera (GRD ’16), Georgetown’s director of utilities and energy programs. If you have ever successfully switched on a light or felt cool air in a university building on a hot summer day, Rivera likely led the team that made it happen.
Recently, Rivera saved the university from being buried in snow by designing the snow-melter that beat the “snowmageddon” in 2010 and this year’s Winter Storm Jonas of Jan. 22 and 23, which left 18 inches of snow around Washington, D.C.
The $30,000 Idea
As with all great ideas, Rivera dreamed up the Georgetown snow-melter while doodling during a meeting.
Following the 2010 blizzard, which dropped an average of 20 inches across the District, the university’s Planning and Facilities Management team began discussing cleanup efforts. One major issue at hand was a monolithic pile of ice and snow covering the McDonough Gymnasium parking lot, which limited vehicle access via university roads.
“In that meeting, I was a little frustrated because all we were doing was talking and not resolving anything,” Rivera said. “Meanwhile days passed and we had that mountain of ice, and it’s not going to go anywhere because it’s not going to melt.”
As his colleagues talked, Rivera, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology, started to doodle in his notepad, sketching a simple solution to eliminate the snow. The result was a steam-heated snow-melting rig.
“It’s very simple,” Rivera said. “It’s like having a Jacuzzi: So if you have a really hot Jacuzzi, you put ice on it, and it will melt. The overflow will go naturally … to the drains.”
Once he had the idea in mind, Rivera went to Karen Frank, the vice president for planning and facilities management at the time, and requested clearance to implement his solution.
“If you give me the go-ahead, all I need is $30,000, and I will solve your problem,” Rivera recalls saying at the time.
Rivera’s design uses a repurposed dumpster to hold water with a submerged radiator grate at its bottom that heats to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When snow or ice from around campus is dumped into this hot bath, it melts on contact and raises the water level to flow out through an upper drain port set high in the dumpster’s side.
Rivera explained that the drain port is placed high on the wall of the dumpster to account for sand and other sediment trapped in the snow.
“As [the snow] melts, it raises the level of the water and it overflows from the top, allowing the sediment to be collected at the bottom,” Rivera said. “And then when we’re done … with the snow removal, that’s when we clean the sludge and dispose of it.”
Once drained, the melted snow proceeds into Georgetown’s combined sewer system, a 19th-century model that mixes storm water and sewer water for treatment and eventual discharge into the Potomac River.
Additionally, the machine features four water pumps that push heated water through two pipes that run along the sides of the dumpster, spraying heated water in small streams out of 24 open valves to further facilitate ice melting.
In industry terms, Rivera’s snow-melter is known as a heat-exchanger model because it uses externally heated fluid — in this case, the steam byproduct returning from Georgetown’s campus and medical center buildings — to heat its fluid reservoir and change the state of snow and ice to liquid water.
After receiving funding in 2010 in an appropriation of internal funding, Rivera said the Georgetown snow-melter, constructed by the Planning and Facilities Management team, was rapidly ready for operation, and proved its efficacy right away.
“It was in operation a week after I got the OK to do it,” Rivera said. “Within three days, we cleared the whole campus.”
Vice President for Planning and Facilities Management Robin Morey said the snow-melter performs its function well to clear the university of snow, especially given the university’s limited real estate.
“It works fine. That’s how we keep up with the snow,” Morey said. “Because really, where do you put all this stuff?”
Melting Snow for the Nation
The Georgetown snow-melter is a modern adaptation of a machine that has existed since the 1800s to clear roadways and congested areas. Large facilities such as the Baltimore-Washington International Airport use snow-melters to clean up after heavy storms; the city of New York owns 36 machines. But, according to Rivera, these industrial-level melters can cost up to $1 million.
The District of Columbia does not own any snow-melters, and during Winter Storm Jonas, the D.C. government had to borrow two machines from Indiana to clear the streets.
Rivera said he sees far-reaching uses for his cost-effective machine design.
“This is a solution that any major building in the city or in the country [that] has boilers [can use],” Rivera said. “All you need is a steam connection, and you’re done.”
For instance, in the District, the Capitol Power Plant, which uses natural gas to supply steam and chilled water to the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and 19 other federal buildings, uses a boiler system similar to Georgetown’s.
During Winter Storm Jonas, Georgetown’s 20 pieces of heavy snow-shoveling equipment, such as front-end loaders, dumped about 3 million cubic feet of snow into the snow-melter, instead of the alternative of simply piling the snow in the McDonough parking lot and waiting for the sun to melt it. At industry rates, the cost of this removal by melting for this one storm alone would have been about $280,000.
Weathering the Storm at Georgetown
As last month’s storm disrupted university life, causing class cancellation and forcing more than 200 workers to sleep both on Georgetown’s campus and nearby, Rivera’s snow-melter helped campus groups provide emergency services to the community.
The Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service was one program affected by the storm.
Snow-covered roads around campus made it difficult for the GERMS ambulance, a front-wheel drive Ford, to traverse campus. During the storm, a large snow pile blocked the area beneath the Village C complex where GERMS ambulances connect to power to charge the instruments inside.
Former GERMS Captain Ryan Jeffery (SFS ’16) said Georgetown’s work with the snow-melter helped GERMS maintain service during the storm.
“We actually relied a lot on facilities to help us out, and they did a really phenomenal job,” Jeffery said. “GERMS had 12 calls for service; nine of them came in while snow was actually falling, and we were able to go to all of them.”
Jeffery confirmed that, as with 10 to 15 percent of all GERMS response calls, a number of the patients assisted during the storm were in life-threatening conditions.
Without the aid of facilities, the snowstorm could have caused GERMS to cancel its service.
“In a worst case scenario [the snow] could shut us down,” Jeffery said. “So if facilities [aren’t] able to clear the roads fast enough … then GERMS can’t operate and we have to rely a lot more on the city, but fortunately that’s not what happened.”
Another affected service during Jonas was SafeRides, a program run through Georgetown’s Department of Public Safety that provides students with free rides around the Georgetown community in university vans. The demand for SafeRides service increases with inclement weather from five to nearly 20 calls in an average hour during the night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Dana Suekoff (COL ’16), the Alpha Phi Omega coordinator for SafeRides, said that during the Snowzilla storm, facilities used the snow-melter to clear the university’s roads well.
“I know the main roads around campus were all cleared pretty quickly,” Suekoff said. “So what facilities was responsible for, they did a fairly good job.”
Expanding the System
With the proven effectiveness of Rivera’s snow-melter, the university plans to construct a movable version of the machine to service problem areas on the north side of campus near the Georgetown University Medical Center.
“We’ll have it ready for next season,” Rivera said. “We’re not in a big rush for it right now, but definitely for next season we’ll have it up and running.”
Rivera continues to pursue innovations in other university areas, including improvements in efficiency in Georgetown’s water-chilling system, in the Regents Hall laboratory ventilation systems and in solar panel installation both on and off campus.
“It’s a new challenge every day,” Rivera said. “That’s the best part of my job: having the ability to be a problem-solver.”