Wednesday, December 8, 2010

County jail goes green

Federally funded solar thermal system almost complete

Express Staff Writer

A construction worker from Sagebrush Solar works to complete installation of solar thermal panels on the Blaine County Public Safety Facility in Hailey. The panels, which will heat approximately 1,700 gallons of water per day, are expected to reduce county energy use and lower its gas bill by several thousand dollars a year. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Blaine County Public Safety Facility in Hailey will soon be one of the greenest buildings in town, due to a newly installed $93,000 solar hot water system funded by a federal grant.

At current natural gas costs, the system is expected to save the county $3,500 per year by reducing gas use for heating hot water at the facility by about 75 percent.

"For all practical purposes, the Public Safety Facility is a hotel with a really good security system," said County Planner Shana Sweitzer. "They go through tons of hot water."

All the jail's water, some 50,000 gallons per month, is now heated by natural gas. The water is used for showering, laundry and food service for the facility's maximum of 88 prisoners and 23 employees. Gas is also used for space heating. Last year, the total gas bill was $31,313.

"We do know that we will generate a savings," said Char Nelson, the county's director of operations.

Because the facility is such a large consumer of water, Sweitzer said, installing a solar thermal system on this building in particular makes economic sense.

"It's more efficient to do one larger building than a lot of little ones," she said.

The 16-collector system will heat 1,700 gallons of water and pump it through existing plumbing.

Sweitzer said that if there's not enough sunlight to heat the water, existing plumbing and the natural gas heater will serve as a backup, meaning the jail will always have hot water. Use of the existing plumbing also helps reduce installation costs.

Sagebrush Solar, a local company that specializes in solar thermal systems, won the contract for the system's installation and is currently finishing the project. The company's owner, Billy Mann, partnered with Precision Plumbing and engineer Brian Formosa. Sweitzer said that partnership helped them win the contract in an open bidding process.

"They had a very simple, straightforward design that would require minimal maintenance," Sweitzer said, adding that she was very impressed with the team's combined expertise.

The $93,168 system is fully funded by an Environmental Efficiency Conservation Block Grant from the Idaho Office of Energy Resources, a grant written by Sweitzer.

The block grants are available to counties and cities that are too small to qualify for direct funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to Sweitzer, seven local jurisdictions applied for the block grant together to increase the amount of funding the area could receive, $700,000 rather than the $100,000 for which the county alone would be eligible.

The municipalities then pooled the money on regional projects that would benefit each jurisdiction, such as the Community Audit and Retrofit Rebate program and replacing standard traffic lights with more efficient LEDs.

Mann said he expects the system to be finished before the end of the month.

Katherine Wutz:

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