Steve Eckert – Arizona Western College
From launching an automatic orbital welding program for installing high-purity stainless steel piping in pharmaceutical pilot plants to working as a sheet metal supervisor, Steve Eckert has accomplished a lot in his three-plus decades as a project engineer and in facilities management.
He started his career in October 1990 as a project engineer at Summa Mechanical Contractors, where he, among other tasks, provided support for the installation of a new central plant and mechanical piping at Arizona Western College. Through some surprising twists of fate, his career path led him back to AWC in May 2011.
Of everything he’s done, when talking with Blueprint in April 2023, he was most excited about his and his team’s recent efforts that landed AWC on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Best Practices in District Energy 2023 list.
In 2020, the DOE entered into a cooperative agreement with the International District Energy Association to study and catalog organizations that had the best practices in enhanced resiliency, efficiency and carbon reduction. The results were posted in mid-2023, with AWC earning recognition in all three areas: engineering, operations and finance.
Located in Yuma, Arizona, AWC is a community college serving 6,000 undergraduate students. Eckert is its director of facilities management. In addition to AWC being recognized by the DOE, Eckert has been listed as one of nine engineers and facilities leaders on the department’s online directory of experts.
His areas of expertise in best practices include chilled water system optimization and thermal energy storage, cooling tower upgrades, solar power purchase agreements, service contracts, preventative maintenance and a “Turn it off” marketing campaign. The latter includes signage across campus that reminds people to turn off lights, for instance, when not in a room.
One of the technical-engineering best practices efforts that led to AWC making the list was Eckert’s work optimizing the chilled water storage. In 2015, he helped recover 600 tons of stranded cooling capacity, which allowed AWC to add three new buildings to the system that was already handling 37 buildings. This also resulted in 2.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity savings, a 15 percent reduction in peak demand charges and a $275,000 utility rebate.
“Making this list is a huge accomplishment for AWC and validates all of my efforts and those of my team,” Eckert says. “I’m even prouder that we did so in all three of the DOE IDEA study areas to provide a better future for everyone at AWC.”
Saving energy while modernizing
The DOE IDEA study also recognized Eckert and his team’s many other efforts, such as purchasing three new cooling towers. These produce an additional 500 tons of cooling, something desperately needed in a state where the temperatures can regularly soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to AAA, Yuma is one of the seven hottest cities in the world and has set a world record for being the sunniest city, annually averaging 4,050 hours (about five and a half months) of daylight out of a possible 4,456. This explains why DOE IDEA also appreciated the AWC facilities team turning to solar power. The installation that began in 2011 has since generated more the $4 million in electric utility savings.
“Our focus on energy savings is ongoing and something that has always been at the top of my mind for AWC,” Eckert says.
Of course, he and his team are handling several other projects as well. Now, they are working on an expansion at the Welton Learning Center, which was built in 2013 and houses the college’s career technical education classes. Currently in the planning phase for this project, Eckert and his team will add to the 6,700-square-foot building.
“We worked to reopen the center to house our CTE programs in 2021 after the center had sat idle for a couple of years due to lack of enrollment,” he says.
Another step towards modernization and handling increasing enrollment is the renovation of the dorms. Enrollment dropped due to the pandemic but has increased and surpassed the pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, Eckert says. The dorms were built in the 1960s and haven’t been significantly updated since then. Eckert is working on creating a hotel-like environment by adding private bathrooms and increasing the number of rooms from 66 to 89. He anticipates this upgrade and expansion will be complete by the fall 2024 semester.
The Matador Activity Center, a new construction, is yet one more item on his to-do list and should be completed by August 2023. According to Eckert, this will be a flagship building that will house crucial programs while supporting students—and the city. It is a 45,000-square-foot, two-story building that will have occupants in September and be fully operational in the spring of 2024.
The college’s radio station, which is also the emergency station for Yuma, will be relocated here. The building will also have a television station that broadcasts relevant AWC content and information 24/7. Overall, the MAC will house two radio stations, a TV studio, seven state- of the art classrooms, a store, a 102-seat lecture hall and more.
“The new building will be designed specifically for these critical services, so we can grow, evolve and continue providing the best to the students and residents of Yuma,” Eckert says.
A serendipitous career change
While Eckert is passionate about his work at AWC, he wasn’t originally looking for a role in higher education. As he recalls, the situation was a bit of when one door closes, another window opens.
For nearly eight years, Eckert was the facility engineer for Carrier, a global high-technology company founded by the inventor of modern air conditioning; it provides heating, air conditioning and refrigeration products. Working in the Yuma, Arizona, factory for the industrial manufacturer, he was helping the company create sustainable, energy-efficient products—until the factory shut down and reopened in Huntsville, Alabama.
While he’s not a Yuma native, he did move there when he was 11 and has always considered it his home.
“I wasn’t about to move, especially as I was in my dream, forever home,” he says. “I was lucky that an opportunity opened up at Arizona Western College and I got to enter into a wonderful field.”
He adds that working at a community college never gets tedious or mundane, as he’s facing new challenges every day. Even when he’s not tackling obstacles or hurdles, he’s pushing the school forward, as evidenced in his efforts that led AWC to make the DOE IDEA Best Practices in District 2023 list.
“We’re a small college and a small facilities team, but we’re doing the work of some of the larger universities in the nation,” Eckert says. “Joining Arizona Western College has given me a chance to apply all the skills I’ve built in my decades-long career to help create a better educational environment while protecting the environment.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VI 2023 Edition here.
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