Building Management

Valves: Unseen and Unsung Heroes

They don’t get the publicity a summer blockbuster brings. They don’t benefit from catchy and mysterious phrases about how to save the world. But, while unseen and unsung, valves are heroes in their own right.

How, you say?

Well, the unseen part is by design. Valves sit behind walls, in basements and mechanical rooms, or in other out-of-sight places. Hiding away such infrastructure allows things like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems seemingly to work as if by magic. Adjust a thermostat and presto! Hot or cold air comes pouring out of a duct, the temperature of a room changes, and everybody is happy – and more productive, according to the World Green Building Council.

Unless, of course, they’re not. That can happen because what comes out of the vent isn’t the expected warm air but instead is cold – or vice versa. That’s the unsung aspect of valves, since the only time an HVAC system or other building management equipment gets noticed is when things go wrong or don’t work as expected.

What goes on behind the scenes – or walls, in this case – is that piping carries water and critical gases where needed to pull off the temperature change or other adjustments. The fluids being moved around come in all sorts of forms and combinations.

Take water, for instance. Water management schemes and associated piping and valves are in all commercial buildings. There’s potable water, which is what most people think of when they think of water. But, there’s also wastewater, hot water for heating and domestic purposes, and greywater. The last is important for water and resource conservation efforts.

There’s also chilled water, which is about 40o F (4o C or near water’s maximum density). For large-scale commercial air conditioning systems, a central water chilling unit is a key component. Chillers send cold water out and take in return warm water so that it can be chilled and used again.

In some applications, such as medical facilities, there may be a need for pure water. This is water that’s free of particulates, minerals, bacteria and other contaminants that are found, to a greater or lesser degree, in common drinking water.

Speaking of medical facilities, another special need they have is for oxygen distribution. Most patient rooms and many others in a medical building will have an outlet that can dispense oxygen. The gas has to be moved to those outlets through a carefully designed piping system. (Be sure to read my colleague’s recent post for more information on building automation benefits for healthcare facilities.)

Industrial buildings and laboratories may have nitrogen or compressed air distribution networks. There also may be more specialized gases, each with its own requirements for safety and efficiency.

The result is that large central facilities like a college campus or a medical complex may have miles of piping to move water, oxygen, compressed air, nitrogen or some other fluid around. Controlling that flow is critical.

And that brings us to the heroes I mentioned earlier: the valves. They make sure the water and gases get to where they need to be when they need to be there. They do that by controlling the flow (see my post about going with the flow to select the right valve), thereby stopping, starting and managing the fluid movement. So, when that HVAC system I mentioned earlier needs to put out hot or cold air, it will.

And that’s because, like heroes in an old Hollywood western, valves do their job and move on, figuratively speaking, without fanfare.

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