Green Solutions: Energy From The Earth Heats And Cools A Historic Building

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By Anne Vazque

Published in the February 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Having operated its city hall building without air conditioning since 1930, the City of Auburn, NY jumped on a fast track to progress when officials decided on a geothermal system for heating and cooling the building. Mike Long was instrumental in the city’s research into this system that draws on the earth’s temperatures.

Mike Long, director of capital projects and grants, City of Auburn, NY

What is your position with the City of Auburn? How many years have you been in the facilities management profession?
I am Director of Capital Projects and Grants. I have 25 years of experience working in local government in Auburn. For the past 15 years, I have been working in the facilities arena.

Can you give a brief description of the facility involved in this project?
The 28,000 square foot building is our Memorial City Hall. It is a historic structure built in 1930 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, and Abbott of Boston were the architects who designed the original building, which was a gift to the city from the Osborne Family. 

Why was the decision made to pursue this project?
When John Salamone, our city manager, came to work here, he was surprised to learn the building had no air conditioning. We had a boiler for heat in the winter, but no cool air. Sometimes during the summer, the building would reach 95°F on the third floor.

The project went into motion when Design Engineer John Manning, PE got involved. At the time, he was working for a local engineering company, Beardsley Design Associates. He had worked on several geothermal projects and thought it would be appropriate for our building.

Please describe the decision making and research process for this project.
We applied for a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which we used to conduct a feasibility study. John Manning and I developed the study to look at the difference between a conventional system versus a geothermal system. The conventional system consisted of a boiler and outside chiller, a pump/distribution system, a ventilation system, distributed fan coils, and controls.

Factors considered in the study included installation costs, operating and maintenance costs, and emissions factors. We conducted the NYSERDA financed study in spring of 2002, and installation was complete in the summer of 2003.

This led to decisions on how to approach the project, and the results became the main reason we decided to go with the geothermal system. We found that a geothermal system would be slightly higher than a conventional system in terms of installation (both were approximately $1 million), but when we considered the life cycle costs over a 20 year period, we figured we would save about $225,000.

Annual operating and maintenance costs for a geothermal system were estimated to be about $19,000 less than a conventional system. And because we would not be using a power plant for our heating and cooling needs, we would reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 57.7%. It was predicted we’d reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 35.5%. A 5.8% increase was predicted for sulfur dioxide, but the other two were significant decreases.

What was the vendor selection process like? Did you feel limited?
At the time, Water Furnace [located in Fort Wayne, IN] was the primary firm producing the equipment we’d need. However, a local company in Auburn, McQuay International, was in the process of developing a new line of water source heat pumps for these geothermal systems. When the project first went out to bid, the quotes we received came in high, so we went back to McQuay and asked if it could accelerate its production schedule.

We were able to get a discounted price for having the first system up and running. We also agreed to make the building available for McQuay to showcase the system to prospective clients.

Siracusa Mechanical in Auburn was the main contractor for the project. PASCO [in Syracuse, NY] installed the controls for the system and also provides the maintenance service.

Through the computer based system PASCO installed, we can control and monitor each of the units throughout the building. The city engineer can set the ranges in each of the zones. Most of the units are programmed with a 3°F swing, so we can adjust plus or minus 3°F with the lever that’s in each of the zones. In some offices, there are more sophisticated units where the occupant can program in his or her own temperature.

What’s also nice is we can call into the system by telephone and access it online. Or, if we’re having trouble with the system, we can call PASCO, who has access to the system and can figure out the problem.

What was the reaction of upper management to the decision to embrace principles of sustainable design in this project?
The initial motivation for change came from the city manager, and he was extremely supportive of the project. So it was a matter of researching the costs and benefits of a geothermal system. Our city engineer, Bill Lupien, was also an active participant during the construction phase.

One of our city council members had spent more than 30 years working in an office on the top floor of the building and had experienced the high heat levels during the summer. Typically, he doesn’t like to spend money, but when this project came up, he knew we had to do something. He voted in favor of the system when the city approved a $1 million bond for the project.

What economic benefits have you reaped as a result of this project? Has it matched the forecasts of the feasibility study?
Actually, I think it has done better than that, primarily because the rate of energy has grown so much since we installed the system. One of the things we had to do was upgrade our electrical system in order to run the pumps. But we were able to cut off our entire gas supply to the building. We’ve been able to keep our costs at a controlled level.

Were there any challenges faced during the installation?
The process went smoothly. We even continued to work in the building during the construction phase.

In the mechanical room of the building, pipes are used to distribute water from the underground system up to water source heat pumps in the rooms above. Photo In the mechanical room of the building, pipes are used to distribute water from the underground system up to water source heat pumps in the rooms above.) Photo: McQuay International.

The system consists of a series of 35 holes, 6″ in diameter, bored 400′ deep in the parking lot. These are connected to a valve manifold located in the old boiler room. The system can be shut off with the manifold. A series of small pipes carry the ground temperature water to the heat pumps located throughout the building.

One challenge was to keep the historic character of the building. For instance, the horizontal piping system installed throughout the building needed to be concealed. Instead of cutting open walls to house the pipes, we built a small kneewall along the perimeter where needed and placed the pipes inside. We topped the wall with a Corian® material that’s very close in color and scale to the marble lintels on the windows.

Did the maintenance staff need any special training to handle the system?
There are filters in the heat pumps that need to be changed. The computer system will tell us how long each filter has been operating and when to change it. So the maintenance staff doesn’t necessarily change all the filters at the same time. For instance, someone who does a lot of cycling—turning the unit off and on, or running longer periods—will need it changed more often.

Have you applied for LEED certification from the USGBC for this project?
I started looking into it but, because this is a major rehab of an existing building, it can be a difficult process. Looking forward, we are planning to install a geothermal system in our police and fire station and will look into LEED certification.

Did this project cost more, the same, or less than a standard project?
$1,058,000 was the total bottom line cost. That included the upgrading of the electrical system and an air handling system that we did not have but was required to put in the system. We also upgraded the electric in each room.

We were able to get a $68,764 grant for the capital part of this from NYSERDA. So, if you take that into consideration, the cost was just about the same for either conventional or geothermal.

What is the anticipated return on investment?
I looked at the 20 year life cycle cost and had projected a $225,000 savings, plus another $15,000 a year savings in operating expenses. So it’s actually close to a quarter of a million dollars over the 20 year period.

What has been the reaction to the project inside your organization?
It has been phenomenal. People can actually come to work in the summer and be comfortable. The building is also a lot quieter inside. We’re located along New York State Route 34, so in the summer when the windows were open, it was very noisy with the truck traffic.

It has also been a great situation where everyone can control his or her own room temperature. In some of the bigger, open rooms, it becomes more difficult where there are several people working in one room. But in the smaller rooms, it’s great.

How has the community responded to this project?
It has been very well received in the community. Our current Mayor Tim Lattimore has been promoting energy related projects for many years. His father was mayor for 16 years, and he was also very interested in energy issues in the 1980s. Greg and Joe Lattimore, the Mayor’s brothers, were also very vocal supporters of the geothermal system.

Why should other facility professionals consider green solutions when the opportunity is present?
Energy is going to be a big part of how any facility is operated. I took some alternate energy classes while attending the University of Buffalo. With the oil embargo at the time, energy costs were going crazy. That’s when people started to look at alternate energy. I think today you’re going to see the same kind of push.

In our situation, we had a team effort with John Manning, Dean Grunseth from McQuay, and our city council working together on this project. It was important to have the engineers and the professional managers involved to show the community that it’s a direction everyone wanted to take. I think it has been a win-win situation for everybody.

What was the most professionally rewarding aspect of this project?
The City of Auburn received an award from the New York Conference of Mayors, which was very nice recognition. I believe we are the first geothermal city hall in New York State, if not the entire country.

Also, Senator Hillary Clinton came to visit us, because she had heard about the geothermal system. We gave her a personal tour through the building, and she has mentioned it several times since when speaking on national energy issues.

We’ve also had tremendous support from Congressman Sherwood Boehlert. He gave the City of Auburn a training grant of close to $300,000, which was then regranted to McQuay to continue its geothermal efforts.

To attract people of that stature to come see our facility is really encouraging.

Questions about this project can be sent to Michael Long at [email protected].

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