Keeping Baltimore on ice

Chiller: A BGE joint venture helps keep the city cool with a communal system like those used in Los Angeles and San Antonio.

April 14, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The iceman prefers to work by moonlight.

Laboring in a dimly lighted alley in a tough section of downtown Baltimore, Stan Gent makes a million pounds of ice every night in a pair of 300,000-gallon tanks that look like huge white Slurpee cups.

During the day, he melts his icy drinks. Pumps drive the cold water through a three-mile network of pipes to provide air conditioning for 15 downtown office buildings.

City officials hope Gent's $70 million Comfort Link system, which was partly completed last June and is being expanded this summer, will help encourage development by saving builders the cost of paying for their own air conditioning systems.

Using a concept of communal air conditioning that Los Angeles, San Antonio and other cities have used since the 1960s, Gent said, the system will give Baltimore an advantage over the suburbs, where offices are spread too far apart to share cooling systems.

"People ask me what I do for a living and I say, `Well, I make a million pounds of ice a night,' " Gent said as he crawled through the hatch into a 60-foot-tall ice tank at a cooling plant that opened in June at Eutaw and Saratoga streets.

As he crouched on a metal platform under the tank's vaulted roof, bubbles gurgled to the top of a grayish pool of water. Just beneath the surface, tons of ice grew like moss around pipes filled with a liquid called Glycol.

The chamber, with its low ceiling and damp, claustrophobic atmosphere, feels like a cave holding a subterranean lake.

"This ice water," he said, gesturing to the frothy broth, "flows under the streets of much of downtown Baltimore."

Next to the tank is a squat white building that thrums with the sound of pumps. Inside that building is a monstrous intestinal tract of twisting pipes that writhe in and around six black, cigar-shaped cylinders, each 20 feet long.

The Comfort Link system is owned by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Monumental Investment Corp. They opened their first cooling plant in the city in 1996 beside the Baltimore Convention Center. It serves the center, Harborplace stores, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 300 St. Paul Street and other buildings. The company hopes to hook up more buildings this summer, including the central Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Basilica of the Assumption.

The network of pipes that runs beneath Charles, Lombard, Saratoga and other streets extends from the Inner Harbor to near Lexington Market. Company officials plan to expand the network by adding a mile of pipe and building a third plant on Lombard Street near Market Place next year.

Some not convinced

Some building owners are skeptical about how much money the system saves. And the ice company has slipped up once during its four years in Baltimore.

During an African art exposition at the Baltimore Convention Center Feb. 12, an 18-inch Comfort Link pipe beneath Pratt Street ruptured, sending ice-cold water surging over the center's floors, forcing 500 exhibitors and visitors to flee.

"That wasn't considered normal, and we certainly don't expect it will happen again," said Gent, a 49-year-old native of Ireland who has been building cooling systems in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Houston and other cities in the U.S. for 15 years.

Many building managers in Baltimore, including Al Harrison, technical services manager for Harborplace and the Gallery, praise the system for saving thousands of dollars because they used it instead of replacing their old, inadequate air-conditioning systems. The new system saves space in basements and salaries for maintenance staff.

Costs vary

The cost of subscribing to the Comfort Link system can range from thousands of dollars to more than a million dollars a year depending on the size and layout of a building, according to company officials.

The Catholic Center at 320 Cathedral St., an eight-story building the houses the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, hooked up to the system in June instead of paying roughly $600,000 for a new air conditioning system, said Louis Willett, the center's director of operations.

Roger Lipitz, chairman of the board of Baltimore Development Corp., said Comfort Link's claim that it can save developers about 5 percent of the cost of their projects could help encourage construction downtown.

"A 5 percent savings for a developer is not insignificant," he said. "If a deal is close, it could make a difference. Anything you can do to bring down the cost of building in the city is helpful, especially in this competitive market."

David Hillman, president of Southern Management Corp., which owns seven apartment buildings and the Charles Plaza shopping complex in downtown Baltimore, said he is skeptical that subscribing to Comfort Link would save him money.

"It's too expensive. I think it's cheaper just to build your own chiller plants in the basement," he said.

The system is designed for office and retail buildings, not apartments, Gent said.

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