Bill Boyes didn’t anticipate incredible savings when he started green renovation plans in 2001 for the North Boulder (Colo.) Recreation Center. Natural gas prices were much lower then, and the solar system the city had adopted had an estimated 18-year payback.

Boyes found himself in a good position, though. As natural gas prices rose from 62 cents to 85 cents per therm, the payback on the system fell to just four to six years. Today, the facility’s solar system saves a whopping $15,000 a year.

“[The system] paid for itself in energy savings in a very short time,” says Boyes, the city’s facilities and fleet manager. “And there’s a noticeable difference in the interior environment.”

Other facilities across the nation are quickly joining the green movement. And it isn’t just because it’s good for the Earth. As the reality of rising energy prices sinks in, green design has become increasingly attractive for one big reason: It can save operators money. A lot of it.

For example, just by installing high-efficiency filters, the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Va., will save 15 million gallons of water a year, compared with its location in the Wisconsin Dells, Wis. That’s a half-year payback, says one manufacturer, and the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.

No wonder entire cities are instituting mandatory green programs. Every new building in Chicago, for example, must be certified through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System. The city also partnered with a solar company and bought $5 million in solar panels to retrofit existing pool facilities. The Windy City’s goal is to install one over every municipal swimming pool. The panels also are being used in park districts, school facilities and hot-water heavy places such as health clubs and laundromats. Similarly, the small city of Sebastopol, Calif., has adopted mandatory sustainable building criteria for new buildings and homes.

Again, while those initiatives are good for the planet, there’s another more pressing motivation behind them, especially for aquatics facilities.

“It used to be that a 50 percent cost recovery was a smoking deal [for parks & recreation],” says Randy Mendioroz, principal at Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif. “Now, it’s a nonstarter. If you go to your city council and say, ‘We’ve got this brand-new aquatics facility, but we’ll be in the red every year,’ they’ll tell you to go away.”

While an energy-efficient facility may cost 2 to 5 percent more up front than a traditional facility, the paybacks start immediately. As energy costs continue to drive uphill, those upfront costs seem well worth it to many aquatics professionals.

“[There’s] a very aggressive push into having greener facilities,” says Jeff Nodorft, director of aquatic engineering at Ramaker & Associates in Sauk City, Wis. In just the past three years, he has noticed a remarkable shift to energy-conscious equipment and building. Most clients consider heat recovery, natural lighting sources and variable frequency drives on their pumps. About two-thirds of his company’s projects are now designed to be energy-efficient.

But it’s not just new buildings that can benefit. A range of green equipment and technology exists that can also save facilities thousands of dollars in annual operating expenses — from the simple to the space age. Regardless of how you feel about the environment, as energy prices continue to climb with no end in sight, experts say going green is as much about sustaining Earth as it is about sustaining your facility’s ability to operate.

Green machines

Many methods and combinations are available to save energy and Earth, experts say. Several come with extraordinary paybacks. Others may be eligible for rebates. While tax credits for energy efficient buildings exist under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, they may not apply to pools, Mendioroz says. However, many local utility companies offer aquatics facilities rebates and energy-efficient programs as incentives to go green.

Here are some of the technologies and equipment these pools are using — and how much they can save:

  • That radiant star in the sky above is one of the biggest energy suppliers. Its power can be captured with solar panels and transferred to the swimming pool. Installations use the existing circulation pump to send water through a series of solar collectors, transferring the sun’s heat to the pool. In addition, a piping system routes the water into the solar collectors. While copper and glazed panels serve as the most efficient collectors, they also are targets for vandalism. “Kids love to toss rocks and break the glazed panels,” Mendioroz warns. For this reason, the lower-priced nonmetallic solar panels often are preferred. They are also easier to maintain.

    For a typical 25-yard-by-50-meter pool, an approximate 10,000 square feet of solar panels are required, with installation costs ranging from $120,000 to $180,000. The operating savings are from $50,000 to $75,000 per year. That means, on a typical facility, solar will generate free energy within four to six years.

    “Once you get over the initial cost, it’s free energy,” Mendioroz says. “Last I checked, I didn’t get a bill from the sun.”

  • Another version of heat generation is the photovoltaic system. This one converts sunlight into electricity, but does not generate heat in the process. The system is simple and reliable, without moving parts, noise or pollution. A regular 50-kilowatt-hour system averages around $250,000.

    The city of Sebastopol has a 17.5 kwh grid-tied system on its community pool. The system produces approximately 25,000 kwh annually and offsets up to 35 percent of the facility’s electric bill. The energy that’s generated operates the pool’s pumps.

    The city also has installed photovoltaic systems on a variety of buildings, including the community pool. The system sells power back to the utility company, and then buys electricity at night. “It’s been a very positive response [from the community],” says Patti Delucchi, Sebastopol’s building and fire technician.

    Because the system is strictly electric, the pool water still requires natural gas for heating. “Given this fact, photovoltaic systems are not as desirable as other energy efficient strategies,” Mendioroz explains. In addition, a photovoltaic system payback can be as long as 40 years. For facilities such as Ives Pool, however, a longer payback is better than struggling to stay above water financially.

  • Cogeneration is another technology that uses multiple sources of energy from one device. The gas-powered microturbine operates much like an automobile engine. A crank shaft spins a fly wheel, producing electricity and heat. On a car, the power is transferred to the wheels. In a pool, the power travels to the generator. The heat — like the exhaust muffler in a car — is used to warm pool water that circulates through a heat exchanger. This now-warm pool water then passes through a traditional water heater to reach the desired temperature.

    One benefit of the system is the low nitrous oxide emissions, as well as rebates some utilities offer. However, microturbines are loud (think a jet plane), and should be installed in an acoustically engineered enclosure. The Los Angeles Community College District installed a microturbine farm for one of the campuses’ swimming facilities as part of its energy-saving program.

    Gas-powered microturbines range from 25kwh to 500kwh, and are sized accordingly based on electrical demand. With heat recovery, the system can be up to 85 percent efficient. A typical 60kwh unit with heat recovery costs approximately $100,000 including installation costs, and will pay for itself in approximately 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years.

  • Another form of cogeneration, fuel cells generate electricity and recover heat. The fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction to produce a direct current power, water vapor and waste heat. Its own power source comes from natural gas, and the process is reliable, quiet and virtually pollution-free.

    The city of Lompoc, Calif., is considering adopting the fuel-cell technology for its brand-new aquatics facility. The technology will provide energy for the complex and nearly 75 percent of the pool heating needs. Furthermore, Lompoc has the option to put the power back on its utility grid, in addition to possible energy credits received from the state of California (the state’s budget crunch has left those credits in limbo for now).

    Fuel cells are not cheap, however. “They’re about half a million a piece,” Mendioroz estimates. Payback range is from eight to 12 years, and only two commercial manufacturers currently produce fuel cells.

  • Upgrading to an automatic backwash system can save nearly $1,440 in water, Mendioroz says. The system senses when filters are full, and backwashes accordingly. This setup works more efficiently than a regularly scheduled backwash, where filters may not need to be cleaned yet. The system adds approximately $5,000 to a filtration system and can be paid for in about 3 1/2 years.

  • Filter amperage now can be adjusted with the flip of a switch. The variable frequency drives controls the filtration system’s flow rate and horsepower, bringing it down at night and up again during the day. VFDs can cut costs by 40 percent, but must meet health department codes, says Matt Cappello, associate project manager with Counsilman-Hunsaker.

    For instance, many health departments require a turnover rate of 500 gallons per minute, 24 hours a day, for a standard 25-yard-by-25-meter pool. “They make it as if everything is going to hell,” Mendioroz says. But he says that if local jurisdictions permit, VFDs should be included in the design. The price is about $3,000 to $5,000, including installation. Payback is estimated at about one to two years.

  • Mendioroz is a big fan of this simple device. Like tucking in a baby, the swimming pool is covered every night with a well-insulated blanket to reduce heating and water loss. Blankets can save up to 40 percent in natural gas costs, he says. They cost about $2.50 per square foot and have a payback of six to 12 months. The only drawback is the extra work they require: To reap its benefits, someone must pull the cover on every night and take it off in the morning.

  • These pumps are kept below the water level and “lift” liquid into the pump. This keeps air from entering the pump. Self-priming pumps, on the other hand, can pass air and re-prime, allowing them to be mounted above water level. A recent client told Mendioroz he did not wish to climb down a ladder into the pit where the flooded pumps were kept. However, he changed his mind when Mendioroz showed him the figures: The self-priming ability can cost a facility up to $22,000 annually in electricity, Mendioroz told them, whereas the flooded pumps can save nearly 30 percent. A typical 15 to 20-horsepower flooded suction pump costs about $5,000, and pays for itself within a year.