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
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
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
“[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.
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:
- PASSIVE THERMAL SOLAR
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
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
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.
- GAS-POWERED MICROTURBINES
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
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.
- FUEL CELL TECHNOLOGY
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
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
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.
- AUTOMATIC BACKWASH SYSTEMS
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.
- VARIABLE FREQUENCY DRIVES
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.
- THERMAL BLANKETS
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.
- FLOODED SUCTION PUMPS
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.