The Masterpiece: Engineering Preserving Art

August 18, 2015

There are things that one would expect to experience when visiting Vatican City—its rich culture, historic architecture, and beautiful streets. You’d likely visit the Sistine Chapel, where you would undoubtedly be awed by Michelangelo’s breathtaking frescoes on its famous ceiling. What you wouldn’t expect to see: a sign on the door that reads “Closed to Visitors.” In 2010, Carrier, the world’s leader in high-technology heating, ventilating, and airconditioning (HVAC) solutions and a part of UTC Building & Industrial Systems, a unit of United Technologies Corp., learned that the frescoes were deteriorating. A whitening patina had formed on the frescoes. The powdery substance consisted of calcium bicarbonate and calcium carbonate deposits that formed from high levels of carbon dioxide and humidity within the chapel, due to six million visitors per year. It seemed that the only way to stop the slow yet steady damage would be to close the landmark to the public. But this was not a viable option for the Vatican and another solution had to be devised. That’s when Carrier and its team of dedicated engineers, including alumna Jackie Russo Anderson, Ph.D. ’11, were called upon to develop an air management solution to preserve the chapel’s artwork and keep it open for generations of visitors to come. After examining the Sistine Chapel’s original air-conditioning system, which Carrier designed and installed in 1993, the team found that although it was still functioning as designed, it was no longer large enough for the growing amount of visitors. It was built to accommodate a maximum of 700 simultaneous visitors. Today, daily visitor traffic in the chapel reaches approximately 2,000 visitors at one time, and 20,000 people per day. Carrier faced an extraordinary task. The company needed to create a system that would increase the volume of air going into the chapel to cool it, while diluting the quantities of carbon dioxide produced and dust brought in by visitors. However, all this had to be done within the chapel’s unique requirements: The system needed to be virtually invisible and inaudible to the thousands of daily visitors; it could only use pre-existing duct openings in a setting that was more than 500 years old; and it needed to manage the flow, humidity, quality, and temperature of the air. The new system also had to be designed to adapt to future needs. Anderson, who obtained her doctorate in mechanical engineering, and specialized in indoor air quality, is a senior air management engineer for Carrier. She was a key part of the air management systems technologies group in charge of designing and testing the air diffusers, and monitoring and understanding the chapel’s airflow. “It was one of the most amazing projects that I’ve ever worked on. It had the most unique constraints and rigorous requirements. It was a global effort with teams working across three continents to determine a solution,” said Anderson. Anderson explained that they had to be creative. The company’s AdvanTE3C engineering team, a global group of experts in efficiency and environment, worked in close collaboration with the Vatican’s technical teams and used leading-edge computer modeling and simulation techniques to predetermine every move they would make. After an extensive process, a technical masterpiece came to life. The new system uses two Carrier AquaForce® 30XWV water-cooled chillers with Greenspeed® intelligence, each with 580 kilowatts of capacity. It leverages specially designed software and components as well as patented, energy-saving technologies to maintain optimal climate conditions to protect the chapel’s paintings. An intelligent system of controls, linked with an advanced video application from UTC Building & Industrial Systems, enables the HVAC system to anticipate visitor levels and adjust its performance. Cameras count visitors to calibrate ventilation while sensors and video analytics proactively ensure optimal temperature and air quality. The new system delivers twice the efficiency and three times the cooling capacity of the former system, offers comprehensive air filtration, and cannot be seen or heard. Although the system was replaced during the peak summer season, the Vatican museums were able to keep the chapel open with the use of a temporary HVAC system provided by Carrier Rental Systems. “The work we completed will ensure that future generations will be able to experience and enjoy the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s masterpiece,” said Anderson.