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New environmental control units keep systems, Soldiers on target

Feb 17, 2011

By Claire Heininger

In the sweltering temperatures of the Middle East, it's not just Soldiers who can overheat.

Their vital communications equipment is also at risk.

"Our Commanding Generals in theater have the most robust and the best communications networks supporting their command and control function that have ever been assembled," said Lt. Col. Ed Taylor, Small Power Sources Product Manager for Project Manager, Mobile Electric Power (PM MEP). "But when that equipment gets hot, it stops working, and when it stops working, the General can't command and control his forces."

The Army's defense against such temperature swings - Improved Environmental Control Units (IECUs) - recently took a major step forward. A Full Rate Production Ceremony for the 60k British Thermal Units per Hour (BTUH) IECU was held on Feb. 2 in Florence, Ky., and the first fielding with an operational unit is projected for March. The Army expects about 1,400 60k IECUs will be in operation by the end of the year, providing more fuel-efficient temperature control for people and equipment in demanding environments, officials said.

"I know what that feeling is like, to come out to a 130-degree day back when I was flying in the Middle East," U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Kentucky), a former Army helicopter pilot, told workers at the FRP ceremony. "You touch their lives, because you give them the ability to do what they do, to get up every morning."

While keeping Warfighters comfortable is important, the move to digitized equipment drove the need for environmental control in the military, said Cory Goetz, who served as the lead engineer on the 60k program.

"Analog gear could withstand much higher temperatures," said Goetz, who is now Product Director, Batteries. "The big reason that these IECUs are out there is to keep critical digital gear operating."

Similar to a stereo or cable box back home, the servers, radios and other communications equipment found inside a command post all produce heat. The IECU moderates the temperatures in which critical Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems operate.

Sophisticated medical devices pose the same issue, and many of the 60k units will be fielded with medical units, Goetz said.

The 60k IECU is standardized so it can be installed, operated and maintained by Soldiers using the tools and training they receive in Army schoolhouses, Taylor said. In the past, the lack of a standard environmental control solution often meant that training and logistics support could not keep up with the pace of fielding non-standard systems, he said.

Designed with Soldier feedback, the new units simplify recurring tasks like performing diagnostics and changing filters, Goetz said.

"We wanted those maintenance items to be easy so that they were performed regularly," Goetz said. "When it goes out into the field, all the parts, all the manuals will be ready so the Soldiers can use them."

The IECUs produced by PM MEP range in size from 9k BTUH to 60k BTUH. Depending on the size, they offer a six to 28 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

The 60k IECU fleet offers a 16 percent fuel savings over comparable mil-standard units, representing an annual savings of more than 1 million gallons of fuel over the entire fleet, Goetz said.

"Environmental control is one of the biggest consumers of power downrange, and if you can improve the efficiency of your environmental control units, you're going to save money on fuel," Taylor said.

The new units also weigh less, meet statutory ozone depleting chemical requirements and do not suffer a power surge when they are turned on.

PM MEP, part of the Army's Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications - Tactical (PEO C3T), provides standardized tactical electric power capabilities to the Department of Defense (DoD) and environmental control capabilities to the Army. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines deployed worldwide receive the electric power and environmental control necessary to operate and sustain equipment vital to mission accomplishment.

During his deployment to Iraq in 2008-09, Taylor experienced the importance of environmental control firsthand. When his command element was moved from Camp Fallujah to Al Asad Air Base in November of 2008, a temporary server room was stood up to accommodate the additional command and control systems and networking constraints. The cooling capacity was "barely enough" to counterbalance it, and solutions were provided by the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), he said.

"It's a basic fact that routers and servers and various types of networking equipment, radios, they all produce heat," Taylor said. "If that heat builds up, it shuts down. ...If we had available to us, or the communications battalion supporting us, had more organic cooling equipment that they controlled, we might've been able to do a better job of helping ourselves, rather than depending on LOGCAP."

Claire Heininger, Symbolic Systems, Inc., is a contractor who supports the Army's Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T).

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