Dan Keller – Tower Health
- Written by: Jennifer Shea
- Produced by: Zachary Brann & Kirk Dyson
- Estimated reading time: 5 mins
By now, examples of the economic tolls caused by climate change have become all too obvious: ramped-up water use by farmers to save their crops from droughts; billions of dollars in damages to towns torched by wildfires; lost tourism revenue as snow melts faster at ski resorts.
But as directors of facilities across the country know, the costs of climate change are already more far-reaching than those isolated examples suggest.
According to Dan Keller, they come in the form of maxed-out cooling capacity, necessitating the replacement of equipment like chillers and cooling towers; or obsolete building envelopes, prompting resealing efforts; or overtaxed pumping systems, requiring extra back-ups and generators. He’s encountered similar issues in his role as director of facilities services at Tower Health’s Pottstown, Brandywine and Phoenixville Hospitals in southeastern Pennsylvania
“Everything we’re doing now—and this is everyone in the industry, whether we’re talking about it or not—everyone is designing for global warming,” he says. “A lot of these hospitals, their last major infrastructure investment, if it’s more than 10, 15 years old, it’s not keeping up with the temperatures in the summertime. It’s one of those things that we don’t talk about it loudly, but we do talk about it a lot.”
A hybrid approach
Caring as they do for the most vulnerable among us, hospitals are most in need of 24/7 functionality. But that is increasingly being put at risk by wear and tear from climbing temperatures—and the rising frequency of extreme weather.
Since Keller took his role at Pottstown Hospital in 2020, several of his projects have involved stretching the hospital’s cooling capacity. This has involved “working with what you have,” he says.
Take, for example, his fix for the hospital’s twin chillers, which have roughly 2,000 tons of chilled water capacity between them. One of the chillers, a 1992 train centrifugal, is “virtually bulletproof,” as Keller puts it. The other, a McQuay, was newer than the first chiller, but had begun to falter.
Taking what he calls a “hybrid approach,” he left the first chiller in place and upgraded the McQuay to a more efficient magnetic-bearing dual-circuit Daikin unit. Pottstown’s electrical supplier, PECO Electric, was overjoyed at the move, Keller says, even pitching in to help with the upgrade.
The only catch is that the two units “didn’t exactly play well together,” Keller admits. One would start up while it was under flow—specifically, the condensate and chilled water pumps came online and were reaching minimum supply flow prior to the chiller starting—and the other couldn’t start under those conditions. So, he had to mechanically redesign the cooling system so that both chillers could work in tandem.
“They work great now,” he says. “The new unit can flex and modulate quickly to handle volatile temperature and dewpoint conditions, keeping energy costs low in cooler weather, while during sustained periods of high outdoor temps the units work harmoniously to do only what is necessary.”
Applying modern engineering
Meanwhile, Pottstown’s dual-cell cooling tower needed repairs. Rather than spend $2.5 million redesigning the system, Keller spent $600,000 epoxy-coating the unit and rebuilding some of its metal portions. Then, instead of putting a sump underneath it, he reused the original sump system, completely coating it in epoxy so it can last another 50 years.
Keller made another change, too—one that capitalizes on the primary shift between “old” and “new” engineering. With old engineering, a machine would run at full speed constantly, the only variable being how many machines were on at a given time. With modern engineering, more equipment than is needed is installed, so when things fail, spares are available. And the pumps function more like dimmer lights than a simple on/off switch; they can ramp up or down as necessary according to demand.
Keller added modulated capacity to the cooling tower, allowing it to ramp up or down as needed. He did that by changing the cooling tower fan motor controls and tower water pump controls to variable frequency drive units.
“If the machine can handle the modulation, adding a VFD is the industrial equivalent of installing a programmable thermostat in your home,” he says. “The energy savings are incredible.”
Braving the pandemic
While he’s spent his career in construction and engineering, Keller didn’t study either in college. He earned his B.A. in sociology and criminology from the University of Missouri-Saint Louis in 2015, then received his MBA through an online degree program at LSU Shreveport in 2019.
Keller landed his first corporate facilities director job in 2017 at Touchette Regional Hospital and SIHF Healthcare, both in Illinois. From there, he made his way to Tower Health’s hospitals in Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t an easy trip.
Tower made Keller an offer a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit; on the weekend he arrived in Pennsylvania with his family to look for a home, the governor closed the state. So, for a long weekend, the Kellers lived off a Wawa gas station’s food supplies, and donned gloves and masks and set out with their real estate agent to figure out how the move could work.
“By the time I moved up here, what was supposed to be a month of orientation turned into a day and a half,” Keller says. “Then I had a pencil and drafting paper out designing how we were going to turn regular patient rooms COVID-safe.”
Today, Keller is expanding his portfolio, having taken over the Phoenixville facilities in January in addition to Pottstown and Brandywine. His responsibilities encompass everything from physical plant operations and overseeing facilities capital to security and biomedical equipment maintenance at all three hospitals.
It’s a lot to manage, but at this stage of his career, Keller has the expertise necessary.
“Whenever I attend a healthcare engineering conference, I am awed by the brilliance of minds working on these problems,” he says. “There is a sense of common purpose to combat climate change while providing the best outcomes for patients and best working environment for clinicians.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.
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