Keeping art museum cool has become man's craft

June 07, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

On hot mornings, Richard Eschenbach enters the Baltimore Museum of Art, ignores the masterpieces and disappears out the back door.

His destination is a large concrete pit, where he admires a work of engineering art that gives him goose bumps and chills.

There is a frieze in front of the museum, and a bigger freeze behind it -- a slab of ice the size of a sperm whale.

To Mr. Eschenbach, who's responsible for keeping the museum cool, the 60-foot-long iceberg is as vital as any painting or sculpture.

Alas, visitors cannot view the berg, which sits in a bunker with the rest of the museum's novel, $600,000 air-conditioning unit.

The system amounts to a giant computerized ice-making machine that cranks out the stuff at night, when utility rates are low, and then uses the ice to cool the museum during the day.

In his job as facilities director, Mr. Eschenbach, 42, supervised the installation. A mechanical engineer, he enjoys rattling off the statistical benefits of the system, from cheaper energy costs to improved climate control for a trove of museum masterpieces.

On steamy days, Mr. Eschenbach likes to slip outside, pop open the freezer door and just let the cold mist roll over him.

"Stand here for 10 minutes and you're frozen," he says, showing off the ice tank. Inside is a chunk of ice big enough to sink a ship -- or to throw a block party for all of North Baltimore.

The machine, called an ice harvester, produces hundreds of sheets of ice on a clothesline of vertical metal plates set above the cavernous storage tank. The plates shed the "finished" ice, which drops into the vessel until it is full.

The storage tank is 15 feet deep, 30 feet wide and 60 feet long.

There, the ice waits for its master.

Mr. Eschenbach activates the cooling system each morning, sending water swirling through the ice and into the museum's air-handling coils. The frigid water cools the coils. Blowers behind them disperse the chilly air through ducts in the building.

Warmed by this process, the water is pumped back to the ice tank and re-chilled before making the same trip again . . . and again . . . and again.

The museum's storage tank holds 175,000 gallons of ice, enough to cool the building for three days if needed. But the tank is seldom empty because a fresh batch of ice is made each night, from the melted water, at one-fourth the cost of daylight power usage.

The museum purchased the ice storage system to fit itexpansion plans. A new wing, scheduled to open in October, presented the opportunity to acquire the cooling system, built and installed by Turbo Refrigerating Co. of Denton, Texas, one of several companies that produces the type.

Already, museum officials point to an 18 percent saving on utility bills. They predict that the system will pay for itself within six years.

"The bottom line is, we're saving money," says Mr. Eschenbach.

Though the system is based on a simple principle, he says, it is sophisticated enough to allow him to adjust the museum's temperature and humidity from a computer terminal in his office there, or even from his home in Bel Air.

The temperature locks in at 70 degrees, humidity at 50 percent -- perfect for art museums, says Mr. Eschenbach.

Continual, long-term fluctuations can cause wood sculpture to crack and paintings to expand and contract.

"This system is definitely art-friendly," he says.

The ice-storage method has drawn support from environmentalists, because its refrigerants are said to be 20 times more benign than those used in conventional commercial air conditioning systems.

Local businesses and institutions are jumping on the ice wagon at the rate of five or six a year, according to the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. It estimates that 40 ice-storage systems are operating in the Baltimore area, including three at BGE's own facilities.

The other locations are indeed diverse; they include Union Memorial Hospital, Severna Park Elementary School and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Moreover, the University of Maryland Medical Systems has one of the area's largest ice-storage air conditioners.

Columbus Center, the city's new marine research facility, will have one when it opens next year, and Johns Hopkins University is planning a massive system to cool its Homewood campus.

The ice storage method is considered too bulky and expensive for small businesses and individual homes.

When the art museum's system was switched on last year, Mr. Eschenbach celebrated by chipping off a chunk of ice and presenting it to Arnold Lehman, the museum director.

"Here it is, Arnold," said the ice man, depositing a 5-gallon bucket in his boss' office.

Any system requires maintenance checks, and Mr. Eschenbach

hopes to inspect the storage tank later this year.

To do this, he will shut off the ice maker, causing total meltdown in the storage tank. Then he'll paddle around inside it on a rubber raft, using a flashlight to check the walls for cracks.

"The water needs to be at least 48 degrees, in case of an accident," he says. "If it's much cooler than that, and you fall in -- well, you don't have a very good life expectancy."

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