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When you consider that energy is the second-biggest expense associated with running a waterpark resort, knowing how to run your operation using less of it can mean significant savings.

Yet figuring out if, when and where to start implementing green technology can be complicated. Utility prices are expected to skyrocket in the coming decades, but the good news is that new and more promising innovations are emerging, giving resort operators a lot to consider as they build new facilities and update existing ones.

Where do you begin to determine which options are right for your facility? Start with the almighty dollar, recommends “America’s Energy Coach,” Thomas Kiser. The founder, president and CEO of Professional Supply Inc. in Fremont, Ohio, has been plugging corporate America’s energy leaks for 30 years, and consulting with waterparks since 2002.

While noting that indoor waterparks are, as a rule, “brutally inefficient,” Kiser says the problems he sees in the industry are absolutely reversible — and affordable.

“‘Going green’ is about green money,” he adds. “When I hear people say things like, ‘Oh, man, it’s expensive. It’s a 15-year payback; it’s just not worth it,’ I realize these people are getting bad advice.”

Professional Supply’s general rule for adapting new systems is that they must pay for themselves in a timely manner. “If it doesn’t eke out a one- to five-year payback, we don’t consider that ‘good green,’” Kiser says.

Matthew Freeby, a project manager at Water Technology Inc. in Beaver Dam, Wis., is quick to agree. “If something has a payback in two or three years, why would you not do it?” he says. “That falls under the ‘no-brainer’ category, and in the aquatics area, there are some pretty straightforward things you can do.”

Down to basics

What are some of those money-saving, earth-friendly options? The divergent sizes, locations, designs and functions of today’s waterparks means there’s no boilerplate answer, but here are a few key, cost-effective components that can generate substantial energy savings for all resorts, regardless of size or shape.

  • UV filtration systems. “For the indoor waterpark, one of the biggest influences on energy consumption is how much fresh air you’re bringing in to address the chloramines and the air quality in the park,” says Daryl Matzke, a senior project manager at Ramaker & Associates in Sauk City, Wis.

Pumping fresh air in and flushing bad air out takes energy and finding that ‘sweet spot’ in terms of proper air distribution is a must, Kiser says. “Eighty percent of your energy bill has to do with proper air distribution: moving the fresh air in and getting the old exhaust air out,” he says. “It doesn’t take me long when I go into a facility to figure out if the ventilation systems are working really well or are killing a client. You’ve got to keep things in ‘air balance’ because if you’ve got bad air quality, you’ll be running your outside air at 100 percent.”

Because air quality in an indoor waterpark is so dependent on the water quality, Matzke recommends boosting efficiency by installing a UV pool filtration system. By improving water quality, you can drastically improve indoor air quality, thereby reducing the need to overuse air-handling units.

  • Heat recovery units. Air brought into a facility also typically needs to be heated — a costly endeavor, particularly in the chillier Northern climates where many indoor waterpark resorts are located. HVAC systems that operate in conjunction with heat-recovery units can help mitigate those big utility bills. By capturing heat from exhausted air, the technology limits the energy needed to maintain a comfortably balmy climate.

“These systems can recover up to 85 percent of the heat that’s in the air,” says Dustin Hull, Water Technology Inc. project manager.

When it comes to heat recovery and most other aspects of efficient design, it’s important to note that today many designers are stressing a holistic approach, looking at the entire property as a collective whole instead of as individual parts. To that end, an operator of a new facility might opt for a single boiler plant that serves the hotel and the waterpark; or they’ll almost certainly want to rely on water source heat pumps that transfer heat from where it’s being expended to areas where it’s needed.

“You can take 140-degree waste water from washing machines and use it to heat your pool,” says Jeff Nodorft, PE, studio director of Counsilman-Hunsaker, a design firm based in St. Louis.

  • Global control systems. Global controls are another energy saver. With these controls, a resort’s systems all operate together and adjust with the patron load, thereby fine-tuning the facility’s energy use.

“Ten years ago, these weren’t available at a reasonable cost. But now, prices have come down, and you can use greater controls and have a real payback,” Matzke says. “They let you find the ‘sweet spot’ for your facility on any given day or at any given time.”

  • Water recovery systems. “Prior to instituting our Project Green Wolf program, we found that the hotel portion of our resorts used twice as much water per day as the waterparks, which was very sobering,” says Steve Shattuck, corporate director of communications at Great Wolf Resorts in Madison, Wis.

As a result, eco-forward institutions such as Great Wolf Resorts and Wisconsin Dells, Wis.-based Kalahari Resorts are making sure that even the laundry water doesn’t go to waste. Both companies have implemented systems that recycle and reuse 70 percent of the laundry water at their properties.

Additionally, the newest Great Wolf Lodge, located in Concord, N.C., features waterless urinals, which are expected to save 40,000 gallons of water per unit annually. Low-flow toilets, faucets and shower heads and a program that limits linen launderings to every third day during a guest’s stay now are de rigueur in all 12 of the company’s North American resorts.

  • Regenerative media filtration. Because water has become a precious resource, the cost to reheat and re-treat supplemental pool water makes retaining every drop an even greater necessity. One way to mitigate pool water loss is regenerative media filtration. RMF technology uses 80- to 90 percent less water and offers an even finer filtration than traditional methods.

What about water loss from evaporation? That can be prevented in some cases by using a pool cover during off-hours.

Another option is to raise humidity levels with steam coils or steam injections.

“If you have low vapor pressure in the air, the water is going to come out of your pools,” Matzke notes. “So adding humidity is something that’s recently started to be considered.”

  • Variable frequency drives. Pumps with VFDs can save electricity by dialing back the device depending on need.

“It used to be that the motor was either on or off,” says Jeff Radue, a project manager at Ramaker. “Now when you’re operating at a lower capacity, you can reduce the [pump] speed and save a significant amount of energy. It can fine-tune the operations of a facility very tightly.”

VFDs are relatively easy to incorporate into existing facilities. What’s more, they offer more than just a one-to-one ratio in energy savings, Nodorft says. “There’s a cubic relationship that follows energy use, so if you cut your requirement in half, you actually cut your electrical input to one-eighth, not just one-half.”

On the horizon

Many of the technologies available today are cost-effective ways to reduce your energy consumption, but it’s a safe bet there is more to come. For those who truly want to go green, other technologies are available, but they may not yet adhere to Kiser’s one- to five-year payback rule.

Already, Kalahari Resorts has 103 rooftop solar panels at its Wisconsin park, which heats more than 60 percent of the resort’s hot water.

“We’ve also investigated wind energy, but it becomes an aesthetic issue in the community where you have to get support from the neighbors,” says Josef Haas, Kalahari’s COO. “So is it on the table? Yes. Will it go forward in the next 12 months? Probably not.”

Hull is interested in the prospect of cogeneration, in which a gas-fired turbine generates electricity and heat. “The advantage to a waterpark is that you can generate your own electricity and have a heat byproduct,” he says. “But right now, a cogeneration unit costs about a million dollars.”

Experts also expect improved efficiency in the heating and cooling of hotel rooms. Currently, systems require the guest’s presence to operate the electricity or AC.

“Everybody’s under the impression that the common PTAC [packaged terminal air conditioner] units are the cheapest way to heat and cool hotel rooms, but they literally throw energy out the window,” Kiser says. “In new construction, you could design a fan coil unit that could cool your room and send the heat from your room down to the pool.”

Retractable roofs also may become more prominent features in future designs. “It’s very expensive to make them, but for some facilities, they make sense,” Radue says. “If it’s a beautiful day outside, why not let the fresh air in?”

Some operators might be gun-shy about updating equipment that has yet to outlive its life cycle, but sometimes the math just makes sense.

“Your boilers may have another five years of life in them, but a life-cycle payback might show that you can actually save money by updating them today rather than letting them run out their life,” Nodorft says.

And when it comes to quantifying those decisions, the numbers can be compelling.

“We’re engineers and architects, so we’re used to doing a cost analysis,” Freeby sums up. “The math will usually tell you whether it makes sense or not.”

Haas agrees: “When we compare last year’s [energy bills] to this year’s, we can really see the difference. Five years from now, it’s going to be scary — in a good way — to compare these numbers.”