Retrofitting recreation
Durango Rec Center looks into major energy-efficiency measures

SideStory: A green Oktoberfest:

The aquatics center at the Durango Community Rec Center is filled with visitors during a typical weeknight earlier this week. The city is looking at the possibility of heating the water for the Rec Center and the aquatics center, which contains three pools plus a hot tub, with solar energy. Last year, the Rec Center spent $380,000 on gas and electric, with much of that going to heat the pool water. A cost-benefit analysis is under way and money is tentatively earmarked in the 2008 Parks and Rec budget./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

As the City of Durango makes strides in energy efficiency with its new library, it also is looking at ways to retrace its steps with another of its big power consumers: the Community Recreation Center.

The city is looking at the possibility of adding solar panels to heat water for showers and sinks and possibly the center’s three pools as soon as next year. “We’ve got it in our capital improvement budget for 2008,” said Cathy Metz, city parks and recreation director. “We’re looking at using solar to heat domestic water, and now we’re also looking at heating the pool, which is obviously our biggest consumer of power.”

Right now, the plans are in the preliminary stages, with results from a cost benefit analysis on the retrofits due in a few weeks. Metz said the study is being done by a local branch of Cromwell Environmental, which has experience with aquatic centers. She said the results will determine if solar-heating of the pools is feasible. “I’m really interested in the pools,” said Metz. “Right now, I don’t think the Rec Center uses enough domestic water to warrant the expense of solar panels, but if we add the pools, it may make more sense financially.”

Metz said she does not have a good handle on exactly how much energy the pools, which are kept at around 85or 90 degrees year round, are using because they were not metered separately until recently. “The first thing we did was put the pools on a separate meter so we could get a good analysis of how much gas is being used,” she said.

The 72,000-square foot facility, completed in 2002, cost a little more than $380,000 to heat, cool and light in 2006, or about $5.28 per square foot. However, an energy audit performed in 2004 by engineering consultant Mark Stetz, and paid for by the Colorado Governor’s Office of Energy, found there was room for improvement. According to Stetz, there are two similar facilities in Boulder – both built at roughly the same time by the same company that designed the Durango Recreation Center, Barker Rinker Seacat – that consume half the energy of the Durango center. According to 2004 numbers, the East Boulder Rec Center runs on about $2.50 per square foot, with the North Boulder Rec Center running on about $2 per square foot. The state average of recreation center energy consumption is between $1.50 and $2.80 per square foot. Stetz said the difference often is in the way the facilities are built, with energy-efficient measures, such as solar panels, insulation and passive solar, incorporated into the original design.

“If you build these things in from the beginning, it’s a lot more cost-effective than adding them later,” he said.

Tim Wheeler, with the Southwest Colorado Renewable Energy Society, agreed. “Solar panels seem like a very cost-effective measure to take for the Rec Center, but it’s always more cost effective to focus on efficiency first and using less resources,” he said. “If you design for efficiency from the beginning, then those additional costs are minimized, and the money is made back more quickly.”

However, all involved noted that energy efficiency was not the hot topic in 1999, the year the Rec Center bond passed, as it is today. “At that time, there wasn’t quite the community demand,” said Wheeler. In fact, he pointed out that his group really didn’t form until the passing of the School District 9-R bond, after the Rec Center was built.

“A lot has changed in the last seven or eight years, especially with people’s literacy around energy issues,” he said. Among those changes is the increased concern over global warming, fuel prices that have doubled and an ongoing war to protect the country’s foreign oil resources. “People are understanding what the costs associated with energy are,” he said.

Despite these issues, Metz said the Rec Center’s design paid attention to efficiency in other areas, such as the rooftop circulation and boiler systems. “We worked on getting the most efficient mechanical systems we could,” she said. “Anytime you have a 72,000-square-foot building, you know that utilities are going to be a considerable operating cost.” Furthermore, the city also later installed a UV radiation system for the pool, which has helped to save water and money.

Stetz said that while these are steps in the right direction, as are solar panels, there are other options as well. For example, a transpired solar collector (a large, perforated sheet of dark metal) could be used to heat outside air before it is brought inside for ventilation, a major consideration in humid, chlorinated aquatic areas. “The biggest thing I saw was really a (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) problem,” he said.

Nevertheless, the city and community are taking these design shortcomings and turning them into opportunities. “Over time, we definitely recognized that this was an opportunity missed,” said Wheeler. “It certainly motivated our group to be far more proactive with civic buildings around here.”

In fact, SWCRES was instrumental in pushing for Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for the new public library. The certification will make the library one of only a dozen or so public buildings in the state to have the Gold LEED certification. He said unlike the Rec Center, the library will not involve the use of solar panels. “LEED certification is based on points, and to reach the gold level, we looked at the least expensive options first,” he said. “Solar panels were not necessary to reach the gold level.”

Other such steps toward LEED certification include access to trails and alternative transportation, bike racks, open space, storm water treatment, light pollution reduction, water-efficient landscaping, and energy efficient heating and cooling systems.

Although solar can be used for electrical needs, it was not feasible in the Rec Center’s instance. “To generate enough to cover our electrical demands, I was told we would need enough panels to fill up all the ballfields,” Metz said.

The Durango City Council is expected to take a look at the Rec Center’s cost-benefit analysis sometime this fall before making a final decision on whether to approve the solar panels. However, City Councilor Michael Rendon said he is looking forward to the results of the study as well as the pilot solar program, which will be a first for the City. “I’m real excited to see how it goes. Hopefully, once we work out the kinks, it can be a model for other City buildings,” he said. “I think we need to move in that direction, especially if people have all these concerns about coal-power plants. Instead of just complaining, we need to find some solutions.” •

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