JBER engineer earns Department of Energy career award

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - 14:44
  • Jonathan Dalsfoist, 673d Civil Engineer Squadron mechanical engineer, sits in front of a tree outside his office building on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Over the course of his 45-year career, Dalsfoist has saved the Air Force many times his salary in energy savings and has recently been selected for the 2016 Federal Energy Management Program’s Exceptional Career Award. Photo by Senior Airman Kyle Johnson

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON — 673d Civil Engineer Squadron mechanical engineer Jonathan Dalsfoist has been selected by the Department of Energy for the 2016 Federal Energy Management Program Exceptional Career Award, having paid his own salary many times over in energy savings.

Dalsfoist began working for the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers on Fort Richardson in 1979 before reaching the apex of that career, and joining on with the 21st Civil Engineering Squadron – now the 673d CES, Dalsfoist said.

Before coming to Fort Richardson, he established a reputation for efficiency at an Air Force Station in Kodiak.

“In the 1970s we had an embargo on fuel, so management started looking at us and said, ‘We need to save energy.’ I said OK, we’ve got this much savings. They said, ‘Great. We need some more!’ I said OK, well I can change a few more things,’ and went back to them. They said – ‘some more!’ It got to the point where I had every other light in the hallway off, and they still wanted more. So I got (upset) and told them the only way to save any more from this facility was if they shut her down.

“They did. I lost my job.”

In time, Dalsfoist proved their loss would be JBER’s gain.

Though the exact amount of money Dalsfoist has saved the Air Force is so high it can only be estimated, one thing is for sure: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson would not be the same without him — literally.

Over his 45-year career, he has either been solely responsible, or largely responsible, for establishing the base’s current electrical and gas systems.

That’s not considering his influence in bringing the base into the digital age, hiring computer programmers in the 90s to create algorithms for automatically heating the concrete outside hangar doors on the flightline.

Before Anchorage had become as established as it is now, Elmendorf Air Force base relied on a steam-electric power plant to supply power and heat to the base. It was originally built by where the 3rd Wing Headquarters now stands, Dalsfoist said.

In the mid-1960s they moved the plant to Bluff Road, using high temperature steam to turn turbines, and a network of underground pipes that transported steam and condensate, used to heat buildings, residential homes and schools. By the 1980s, the heat distribution was beginning to fail. Enter Dalsfoist.

The condensate pipe return system began to leak badly to the point that no condensate returned to the plant, Dalsfoist was charged with coming up with a solution.

“We were having failures,” Dalsfoist said. “They were underground, so I couldn’t see what was going on. Once a year, the Air Force Reserve F-4 Phantoms would train taking aerial photographs. I asked them if they could do infrared.”

The pilots told him they could, and asked what they could do for him.

“At 6 o’clock in the morning, I want you to fly back and forth over here — and I showed them the map — and take photos of the ground,” Dalsfoist said.

With the infrared images, Dalsfoist was able to tell which pipes were compromised by the amount of heat registered on the photos.

He began replacing the pipes, one section at a time, beginning with the most-compromised. That’s not all he did though, Dalsfoist went one step further — he convinced the on-base housing manager to fund a portion of the repairs.

“I noticed it was mostly housing, so I talked to them and explained if they want their heat, they need to fund the repairs or risk loss of heating,” Dalsfoist said. “They were more than happy to help”

Dalsfoist was bailing water on a sinking ship. Replacing the pipes wasn’t a long-term fix; it was a necessary band-aid.

“I was replacing one to two miles of pipe a year,” Dalsfoist said. “They asked me when I was going to get done.”

With all the tact of a lifelong engineer, Dalsfoist said, “Never. I have 53 miles of lines, I can only fix two miles a year. How long before I fix that? 25 years? The useful life of the line I’m putting in is 15 years.”

Luckily, Anchorage utility had grown to the point that they could provide reliable power to the base, and Dalsfoist, along with others, began the initiative of shutting down the doomed-to-fail steam-electric plant and purchase power from the city.

Now, there was no plant to maintain, less operating cost and labor with stable power and heat to the base at no risk of blowing up old steam lines.

That was just the first 10 years of his career. Several years later, he pioneered a movement to stop using buried oil tanks as fuel on base, and instead switch to natural gas, which he bought from a local provider, Dalsfoist said.

Again, his plans saved money on labor and maintenance, not to mention the environmental improvement on base, Dalsfoist said.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the digital age was descending on America like a storm, and Dalsfoist pulled JBER right in the middle of it, hiring programmers to set up an energy management and control systems for the base heating and ventilation. The system included maps of the base’s facilities down to the room level that would show where something was damaged and in need of repair.

Unfortunately, in 2012, Dalsfoist lost the use of his legs as a side-effect of surgery to remove a tumor wrapped around his spinal cord. The tumor was benign, but when it was removed, a pressure bubble formed within the spinal cord.

When the doctors went in a second time to drain it, a nerve was injured, and just like that, Dalsfoist would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

That hasn’t slowed him down a bit though; he’s still saving the Air Force money as a mechanical engineer, and leadership is doing everything they can to keep him from retiring.

“We are concerned Jon might retire on us,” said Morgan Benson, 673d CES energy manager. “I don’t say that loosely with him, I’m not trying to push him out the door; really I’m trying to keep him inside the building. He’s still a very valuable contributing member of our team.

“I’d like to keep him. So we wanted to do something that would recognize all the contributions he’s done in the years past, so we nominated him.”

For now, Dalsfoist will continue paying for his own salary, but after 45 years of employment, he could have retired twice by now, and may soon hang his hat. If he does, the shoes he leaves will be hard to fill.


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