KEEP­ING THE LIGHTS ON AT O’HARE AIR­PORT

Op­er­at­ing en­gi­neer Mike Badame is happy not to be no­ticed

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY RYAN SMITH

Mike Badame has one of the most im­por­tant jobs at O’Hare Air­port you’ve never heard of — and he aims to keep it that way.

As as­sis­tant chief op­er­at­ing en­gi­neer for the Chicago Depart­ment of Avi­a­tion, he’s part of a team lit­er­ally keep­ing the lights on at the air­port com­plex and much more. Think of the fa­cil­ity like a hu­man body and engi­neers like Badame as its cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem.

“We han­dle all of the heat­ing and cool­ing, the au­to­ma­tion sys­tem re­port­ing, the en­ergy man­age­ment, the water dis­tri­bu­tion and all the util­i­ties,” said Badame, 41, who’s worked at O’Hare since 2008.

It’s the kind of es­sen­tial work that qui­etly hums in the back­ground at O’Hare dur­ing all the hub­bub that comes with 80 mil­lion pas­sen­gers zip­ping in and out of 900,000 flights a year in the world’s sixth-busiest air­port. If Badame gets no­ticed, it’s likely be­cause some­thing’s not work­ing cor­rectly.

“The peo­ple work­ing be­hind the walls? No­body ever re­ally no­tices us or sees us. And the fact that we’re able to op­er­ate un­no­ticed speaks vol­umes about the op­er­a­tions of the air­port,” said Badame. Not that it’s easy. Con­sider the stag­ger­ing size of the sprawl­ing air­port com­plex whose 7,200 acres stretch over two coun­ties. With its four ter­mi­nals, nine con­courses and maze of run­ways, O’Hare is like a city-within-a-city.

Badame does most of his work in the heat­ing and re­frig­er­a­tion plant and chiller plant, the omi­nous-look­ing black build­ings that flank the ter­mi­nals. In­side sits heat­ing, ven­ti­la­tion and air con­di­tion­ing (HVAC) in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing sev­eral 60,000-pound chillers and a 90-ton hot water boiler sys­tem re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing space heat­ing and hot water to the ma­jor­ity of the cam­pus.

“We have around 800 mil­lion gal­lons of hot water in cir­cu­la­tion, 30 mil­lion gal­lons of chilled water and dis­trib­ute 1.5 mil­lion gal­lons of do­mes­tic water per day,” said Badame.

Tech­ni­cally he’s a sta­tion­ary en­gi­neer — a pas­sive ti­tle for a very ac­tive job that means over­see­ing the op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance of the util­ity sys­tems in man­u­fac­tur­ing sites and large build­ings such as hos­pi­tals, of­fices, and uni­ver­si­ties.

On a day-to-day ba­sis, sta­tion­ary engi­neers trou­bleshoot these mas­sive sys­tems that may be mal­func­tion­ing and fo­cus on some­thing called pre­dic­tive main­te­nance, which means mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment dur­ing nor­mal op­er­a­tion to re­duce the like­li­hood of fail­ures. In the tech­heavy era of the net­worked “smart” build­ing, more sys­tems are be­ing au­to­mated, which means Badame is in­creas­ingly writ­ing or al­ter­ing the code for Di­rect Dig­i­tal Con­trol (DDC) sys­tems based on his re­al­world ex­pe­ri­ence.

The $8.5 bil­lion O’Hare Mod­ern­iza­tion Project has added a de­gree of dif­fi­culty. The project calls for the de­mo­li­tion of the in­ter­na­tional ter­mi­nal in or­der to con­struct a new global ter­mi­nal, as well as up­grades and ren­o­va­tions to oth­ers. By the time the plan is com­pleted in 2028, it will bal­loon the air­port’s ter­mi­nal square footage by 60% and add 25 gates.

Since there’s no such thing as a day off at O’Hare, Badame’s team must jug­gle the ef­fects of the new cap­i­tal projects while main­tain­ing nor­mal day-to-day op­er­a­tions.

“The big­gest strug­gle for us is do­ing these large-scale equip­ment re­place­ments with­out in­ter­rupt­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of util­i­ties and im­pact­ing the trav­el­ing pub­lic in a 24/7 fa­cil­ity,” said Badame. “It’s like a new air­port within an air­port.”

It might sound like in­tim­i­dat­ing work, but for Badame, it’s se­cond na­ture.

As a kid grow­ing up on the North­west Side, he was con­stantly tin­ker­ing with elec­tron­ics and toys, dis­as­sem­bling them to find out how they work. Later, he moved on to more ad­vanced things like com­puter sys­tems and ve­hi­cles.

When he first learned ex­actly what an op­er­at­ing en­gi­neer was, he says he felt a “deep con­nec­tion” to the pro­fes­sion.

“When I found out there was an ac­tual field that was tied to those types of ca­pa­bil­i­ties, that ex­cited me a lot,” he said.

Badame later earned an as­so­ciate’s de­gree in sta­tion­ary en­gi­neer­ing at Triton Col­lege in River Grove, a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in in­dus­trial tech­nol­ogy and man­age­ment from Illi­nois In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and com­pleted his ap­pren­tice­ship through IUOE Lo­cal 399 in 2006.

These days, he’s also pass­ing on his knowl­edge to the next gen­er­a­tion by work­ing as an ad­junct in­struc­tor at his union’s train­ing cen­ter in Chi­na­town. One of his most im­por­tant lessons: Size isn’t every­thing.

“I try to teach them to not be in­tim­i­dated by any sys­tem no mat­ter how big it is,” he said.

BRIAN RICH/SUN-TIMES

Mike Badame, as­sis­tant chief op­er­at­ing en­gi­neer for the Chicago Depart­ment of Avi­a­tion.

A Sun-Times series spot­light­ing the peo­ple and pro­fes­sions that keep Chicago thriv­ing. Health care pro­files are un­der­writ­ten by AMITA Health, la­bor move­ment pro­files by the Chicago Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor and sports pro­files by the Chicago Black­hawks.

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