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Guest Column - October 2007

Free Energy

Using Solar Power to Heat Commercial Pools

By Beth Bennion


T
he City of Midland, Texas, may be located in the heart of oil country, but that didn't stop officials there from recognizing the tremendous benefit of using free energy from the sun for their pool heating needs. This facility, which features five indoor pools totaling 839,000 gallons of pool water, installed solar pool heating in the spring of 2004, and with an investment payback estimated to average just three years, officials with the facility are reporting on-target projections and overall high satisfaction with the performance and savings of their system.

Solar pool heating systems typically pay for themselves in three to five years, are maintenance-free and have a life expectancy of 20 years or more. Now more than ever, operators of commercial swim facilities everywhere are facing tough decisions about their pool heating options. Weekly fluctuations in price and uncertain stability in foreign fuel economies can make it difficult to project annual pool heating expenses, and even more so, to rely on those projections throughout the calendar year. It's not surprising, then, that more and more commercial facilities are making the switch to solar energy to provide a large portion of their pool heating needs. After all, the price for solar heat will always remain the same—free.

The field of solar energy is growing at a rate of 40 percent per year, and commercial pool facilities that install solar heating can start saving money immediately, regardless of where they are located.

Solar pool heating systems can be found throughout the U.S. and around the world at places like military bases, recreation centers, homeowner associations, waterparks, campgrounds, universities and even Summer Olympic pools—all of which are enjoying free energy from the sun. Solar energy provides cost-effective pool heating for thousands of commercial users each year, saving them literally millions of dollars.

How much can you save?

The performance of a pool heating system is determined by a combination of many site-specific factors, such as local weather conditions, wind patterns, orientation of the pool, variations in the pool, blanket usage and backup heater temperature settings.

Larger solar manufacturers can provide a free energy savings analysis for commercial facilities upon request to assist them in making an informed decision about solar. Sophisticated computer modeling can be used to evaluate a facility's specific pool information including size, desired temperature, current pool heating costs and even roof structure to produce a very reliable snapshot of your potential savings and pay-back with solar. In some regions, the use of a solar heating system can lengthen the swim season to 12 months, while in other regions it can drastically extend the swim season. Regardless of geographic region, months of pool heating will be added without the expense associated with full-time use of fossil fuel heaters.

Tax credits may offer even more savings for pools that choose the solar option. There's never been a better time to consider renewable energies. Many states are funding tax incentives for a limited time, so facilities that act quickly may be able offset a portion of their investment with help from Uncle Sam.

Choosing a solar pool heating system

A fully sized solar pool heating system requires about one square foot of solar panel for each square foot of surface water. Most facilities can accommodate the panels on a roof, but other mounting options are also available. The desired pool temperature is programmed into an automated controller, and sensors work together to communicate to the controller when to turn the system on or off. A backup gas or electric heating system is still utilized for cloudy or rainy days, and a manual override can even be used at night to cool pool water in excessively warm summer temperatures.

When shopping for a solar pool heating system, it's important to evaluate the standard manufacturer's warranty, including exceptions and limitations. Most now offer 10 to 12 years of coverage, though some may not include parts or labor in their policies. Depending on your climate, the company's policy on freeze protection will also be important. Make sure that the manufacturer under consideration has been in business longer than the length of the warranty offered.

Installation should include as few roof penetrations as possible. Some systems are specifically designed to prevent moisture from being trapped under the panels and to avoid "lift" in high wind or hurricane conditions. Panels containing seams or welds can be subject to cracks and leaks over time. Some manufacturers even offer a variety of panel colors that blend with your facility's roof for a more pleasing appearance.

Saving more than money

Commercial pool facilities have collectively made a huge positive impact on the environment by utilizing non-polluting renewable energy sources instead of burning non-renewable fossil fuels. On average, a 100-panel system will save 2,400 gallons of LP fuel per month while reducing caustic environmental pollutants, up to 58 tons of carbon dioxide and 108 pounds of nitrogen oxide per year. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that commercial solar pool heating is the most effective application of renewable energy available today.

If it's been a while since your operation has considered solar pool heating, or if you never considered solar because of your geographic area, it's time to take another look and explore the savings and payback benefits for your facility. By acting quickly, facilities may be able to take advantage of significant savings on their investment with government tax credits. With fluctuating fuel costs and uncertain supply in future years, you simply can't afford not to consider solar for your pool heating needs.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Beth Bennion is the director of marketing for Heliocol Solar Pool Heating, one of the world's largest solar pool heating manufacturers. Chosen to heat the pools for the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympic Games, Heliocol Solar Pool Heating systems work in any climate and carry a life expectancy of 20 to 25 years. For more information or a free energy analysis for your facility, visit www.heliocol.com.