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OE324 Stationary Engineers keep DTE running

At two modern buildings, a short drive down the I-94 corridor from each other, Operating Engineers 324 Stationary Engineers are putting their considerable skills to work overseeing facilities that provide invaluable power and comfort to two Michigan institutions.  At the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, they provide the heating, cooling, electrical distribution and emergency backup to one of the world’s busiest airports.  And in Dearborn, they are doing the same for the Ford Hub campus – along with providing them their actual generated power as well.  Both sites (DTE Metro Energy and DTE Dearborn CEP) are operated by DTE Vantage (On-Site) employees and represented by OE324.

These two stations represent the best in essential services OE324 members provide.  They are using the newest technologies in safety-first conditions, ensuring that these two important staples to Michigan are up and running, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

McNamara Terminal

There are a lot of security protocols in place to get to the DTE Metro Energy facility at the McNamara Terminal.  That’s because the building sites so close to the Terminal that jets will often throttle up their turbines right outside the massive overhead door looking out over the east side of the terminal.  In January 2023 alone, the McNamara Terminal welcomed 1.5 million passengers through its doors – passengers who expect a temperate climate for their stay.

Anthony Hobbs has been the plant manager at the DTE Metro Energy powerhouse for four years.

“Our main responsibility is to provide comfort – heating and cooling – to the McNamara terminal and Westin Hotel,” he explains. “We also have three generators to supply back up power to keep the airport from flooding and supply power to the terminal in case of emergency. Finally, we control and distribute the power that comes in from the utilities (DTE) at 120 kV. So, we have two big transformers to reduce the voltage to 13.8 kV and distribute it throughout the various parts of the airport.”

Hobbs, who was a member and steward of IUOE Local 399 in the past before joining the management in DTE Vantage, credits the value and experience of OE324 Operators in the roles maintaining the essential facility.

“The resources they have, and the training – in unions, they give good training that you can see. You can see that in the work they do, quality skilled work. Just like I’m highly trained in the electrical area, I know I do good work and I know really good work when I see it. That’s what we have here.”

Steward Robert Fowler has been at the DTE Metro Energy facility at the McNamara Terminal for 20 years as of March 1.  A 20 year Navy veteran, Robert learned about steam propulsion while in the service, and exited into a career as a Stationary Engineer.  When the opportunity arose in 2003 to join the team at the airport, he leapt at the chance.

The facility operates chillers to provide cold pressurized water through the terminal, allowing air units to push air across the lines and lower temperatures, and boilers to provide the hot water that is sent through heat exchangers for warmth.  Neither necessity is limited by the season or temperature outside either.

Robert explains that the chillers, while less active in the Winter, are still necessary for the tram that runs the length of the terminal.  The large, water-cooled chillers are shut down in the winter and the cooling water service is provided using air cooled units for efficiency.

“Right now, the tram is our probably our biggest user of the cooling water,” he explains. “We need it to keep the motors on the train from overheating.”

The challenges around providing a consistent comfortable climate are unique as well.

“At different times of the day, you have different load conditions, and it doesn’t always work like you would think it would,” explains Robert.  “You might think ‘the sun’s coming up and your load is going to go up.’ That doesn’t always happen. Around here, our loads very dependent on the airport’s flight schedules.

In the morning, there is a big rush of airplanes – people coming into the airport, getting on planes, flying out. All these people coming in and out of the doors means that hot air in the summertime is rushing in at five or six o’clock in the morning. So, we have very high chiller load conditions. Then, during the middle of the day, the load stabilizes. Once the sun gets on the far end, and all the flights that left that morning are now bringing people back to the airport for the night, those doors are being opened again – all the access gates – and the heat comes rushing back in. So, we have a very high chiller load in the evening.”

Robert also mentions that the west side of the terminal is all glass.  It gives beautiful panoramic views for passengers awaiting their flight, but also means that afternoon temperatures on that side of the building can often be significantly hotter and needs greater regulation.

“That’s what I like about this team and these operators,” says Hobbs. “They’re all highly engaged, and they know about all this stuff because they’re paying attention and looking at numbers to know what’s happening and why it’s happening.”

Eric Butterfield is also an OE324 member and steward, and actually came into a career as a Stationary Engineer after working for some years as an asphalt plant operator.  When he decided to change careers, he took classes at the Operating Engineers 324 Stationary Engineer Career Center, and remembers his classes with instructor Keith Adkins fondly.

Eric continued his education while working at several prominent metro Detroit facilities and is licensed in both Detroit and Dearborn.  Eric points to the electrical responsibilities the facility has.

“There is a lot of electrical switching. You’re moving breakers, pulling breakers out, turning things on and off.  Plus, we have to be ready at all times in case electrical generation is needed – if the grid coming in goes out or there’s a failure somewhere.”

Eric and Robert both point to the massive generators that compare to the size of a full size eighteen-wheeler.  These massive engines would keep the McNamara Terminal and DTW – one of the 50 busiest airports in the world – up and running in case of a disaster (like the 2003 Northeast Blackout, which Robert worked through).

Hobbs gives the credit to the team keeping things flying smoothly at the facility.

“We’re just a good team, we jell together – everybody’s got their niche.  Dan’s our lead, he’s a really good mechanic. I’m here, I have a lot of electrical background. Eric’s had a lot of training, he’s a good operator.  Bob’s had a lot of training In operation.  We have a good variety of skills here.  And the people that are here want to learn.  Just like (OE324 Apprentice) Caleb Carter – we put him with Eric to learn.  We have a good team.”

DTE Dearborn CEP (Ford Campus)

The building itself – sleek and modern – is surrounded by the signs of construction.  This is the heart of the Ford Motor Company Dearborn campus.  Standing among the cooling fans on the roof, you can peer over onto the Ford Proving Grounds, Laboratories, and even the Henry Ford Museum.  From the ground, you can witness the massive construction taking place on all sides – part of Ford’s expansion and construction of their new Hub.

Many Operating Engineer 324 members are working on these sites – the cranes are visible from downtown Dearborn – but it’s the members working inside of this building that are telling their stories today.

Dan Gubka is a Lead Operator at the facility and has worked in the industry for almost 40 years.  He cross trained as an apprentice electrician and stationary engineer, and became licensed in both, following in the heels of his father who worked as a Stationary Engineer for a Ford facility himself.  As luck would have it, this new facility is set to take over the power generation from the one his father once worked at, as it is retired for the new facility.

What makes the new facility so much better?  Dan explains the technology housed in the massive building.

“We have two Solar Titan 130 generators, generating 15 megawatts each. That’s our base and they make up to 225,000 pounds an hour of steam. That’s our primary utility we sell to Ford.”

These generators are cogeneration systems. They drive a gas turbine by using natural gas and produce electricity and steam continuously.

“The exhaust is then used to make steam in what’s known as a heat recovery steam generator. And the remaining heat goes through an economizer to preheat feed water. So, we take roughly 1,000-degree exhaust and go to a stack at about 280-300 degrees. This way, nothing’s wasted.

“We also have five 3,200-ton water chillers – Trane’s biggest in Michigan when they were installed. And two 1,850-ton and a 1,200-ton heat pump chiller so we can make heating hot water or chilled water combined based on what the load is for Ford.”

For OE324 member and Steward Brian Dvorak, the chance to work at this great new facility was worth moving across the country for.  A native of San Diego with a growing family, Brian worked for DTE Vantage there (where they run a hospital power plant) but jumped at the chance to relocate to Michigan and work here.

“I started out at 19 as a mechanic’s helper,” says Brian, explaining his path. “but I slowly started working my way up into the operations.”

Brian joined the team four years ago when the facility first came online, and serves as a steward along with Jim O’Brien.

“I like being a steward, being able to help out,” says Brian. “I get to hear other people’s opinions on things, see what they do like what they don’t like. It kind of helps me actually brush up on a lot of the things that we can discuss here (in negotiations) as well.”

Jim O’Brien went into Stationary Engineering after service in the Air Force.  Ten years ago, he went to work at the University of Michigan, where he first became an OE324 member, something he carried over to DTE Dearborn CEP when joining the team two years ago.

“I was a steward there too, although it was a shop so it was a little different,” Jim says about his time at U of M.

“I think just always been into instrumentation and controls,” says Jim. When he was in the Air Force, “I worked on aircraft, generators and instrumentation and that kind of morphed into powerhouse stuff.”

Mat Fowler points out the diversity of the team and their respective skills is their strength.

“The team is very diverse. Everyone has their strengths. Everyone has a weakness. The majority of the team have no problem asking for help on something that they may feel weak in, but also jump in and share something that they feel they’re strong in.

“When people gel, it makes it enjoyable to come to work. If you’re excited to go to work, it’s a whole lot easier getting up and going than dreading jumping into the shower (to go to work).

Dan points out that the facility, while running efficiently now, is still only at a fraction of it’s capacity.  It is awaiting the completion of the Ford Hub, at which point it will provide the electricity for the entire campus (as well as the heated and cooled water).  The equipment is ready and standing by, awaiting the estimated 2024 Hub completion.

“200% Accountability”

One thing stressed most by both groups is the safety they practice day in and day out.  This comes with accountability not only to DTE Vantage but to each other.

“Each one looks after each other,” says Mat. “And if someone’s not wearing their proper gear, they’re called out on it. So, then it never happens again.”

“The most important thing we do is that we work safe,” says Hobbs.  “We do everything safe, and we will stop at any moment to review and assess.  DTE Vantage says safety first, and we follow it.”

Dan agrees. “We can spend two hours talking about a job, pre-job brief, job hazard analysis, the cheese wheel or the stop action plans before we go into a job. Management never says anything negative about it – they want us to be as safe as absolutely possible.”

Facilities of the Future

With the post-COVID travel getting back to normal, and the new Ford Hub construction nearing its end date, both OE324 represented DTE Vantage teams are looking into the future at increased necessity.  Both facilities showcase the newest advancements, not only in power generation, but in safety and teamwork.  The future is bright and powered by some of the best skilled OE324 Stationary Engineers.