Something not often thought about is how buildings are heated on military installations in Alaska – that is, until the system breaks. At King Salmon Air Force Station, a central steam plant has kept the heat running since the Cold War. But, as the years have gone on, the job of keeping it operational has become increasingly difficult.
“The existing steam plant is hard to maintain and find repair parts for,” said Mike McNalley, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District. “It’s also very inefficient because of the system’s age.”
The need for an upgrade to this critical infrastructure led the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron to seek a new way to heat its facilities and meet mission needs at the remote airfield in southwest Alaska. With winter temperatures hovering at well below freezing in this region of the state, a dependable heat source is critical to ensuring base operations run smoothly.
USACE Alaska District stepped in and devised a long-term solution that vastly improves the reliability, cost effectiveness and energy efficiency of the utility service. The organization awarded a $3 million contract to execute the project in November 2020.
“The steam plant provided heat to the majority of the site at King Salmon,” said Capt. Adam Teston, deputy engineering flight chief for the 611th Civil Engineer Squadron. “But due to its age, the heat loop had some significant leaks that caused the site to lose hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of water on a daily basis. In accomplishing this project, we were able to isolate the leaking parts of the heat loop and save the Air Force money and water.”
By installing a modern heating system for each building, the squadron can deliver essential heat for the next generation of airmen and contractors assigned to work at the installation.
“The goal is to install individual heating systems in each building, so the central steam boiler can be decommissioned in the future,” said Capt. Justin Dermond, project engineer for the Alaska District.
When an installation is built from the ground up, master planning typically designs for a centralized source to produce steam and hot water that is distributed to buildings through a network of underground pipes. The facility generates heat by burning fossil fuel in large boilers.
Decades later when it no longer makes sense to keep the outdated technology in service, replacing the entire steam plant is not always an option. This was the case at King Salmon, so USACE and the Air Force looked at more feasible ways to heat its buildings.
In 2021, the district disconnected four buildings from the centralized system and equipped each with an individual heating system. These modifications were made to a dormitory, gymnasium, communications building, and housing for the existing steam plant.
“Critical facilities were identified for standalone heat systems,” Teston said. “Now that those facilities have the needed heat systems installed, the Air Force can decommission the steam plant and begin programming projects to demolish non-critical facilities. This will help us decrease our footprint and save significant costs at King Salmon.”
However, the antiquated steam plant system will remain operational until all applicable buildings on the installation are retrofitted and activated for independent heating.
“We have to leave it online until some more buildings are converted,” Dermond said. “We added 3 inches of insulating spray foam and a new roof as a temporary fix until the plant becomes obsolete and the building can be demolished.”
While the scope of work for adding boilers to the buildings is not overly complex, the isolated location of the base made for some logistical challenges in the construction phase of the project.
“The weather is never good,” Dermond said. “With the wind and rain, we needed a good weather window to schedule a subcontractor to fly out and spray the insulation. We definitely had to get the stars aligned to make it happen.”
Located between Bristol Bay and Katmai National Park and Preserve, King Salmon is just over an hour flight from Anchorage.
“Something you don’t think about is what happens when you don’t have a part on hand,” Dermond said. “You cannot run to the hardware store down the street – you have to wait for it to be shipped from Anchorage.”
This means something as simple as a brass fitting can take a week to reach the project team, changing what work can occur at the site in the meantime. The timing of when to perform the decentralization project was another important consideration.
“We either had to fly or barge all the equipment and supplies to the site,” McNalley said. “We also scheduled work to happen mostly in the summer, so they would not have to provide heat to the buildings under construction.”
The remote air station has gone through multiple iterations of usage since its establishment in the early 1950s, serving as a divert airfield and long-range radar site among other purposes. Now, the installation is used for training and can house up to 300 airmen. One of the dormitories on the list to receive new boilers also served as lodging for the construction team.
“My commute for that project was the other side of my wall,” Dermond said. “As we worked to install the new items, I also stayed in the facility.”
Another structure on the retrofit list was a composite building that houses everything from a gym to a movie theater to the headquarters for Katmai National Park and Preserve.
“We ended up demoing a storage room and turning it into a mechanical space,” Dermond said.
In doing so, they upgraded the heating system without expanding the building’s footprint.
The completion of this set of projects, from concept until the last electrical breaker was installed, took about three years.
“It’s always exciting to me to see a project that I started come to an end,” McNalley said. “Often, we don’t think about the little projects that have to get done and the maintenance that has to happen to keep an installation running.”
While the team can take satisfaction in accomplishing the initial phase of construction, more work remains. USACE will continue to partner with the 611th to add new heating units to two more buildings at the air station with the goal of decommissioning the aging steam plant in the next few years.