New building to use geothermal energy

A group of engineering students learned last week that the university is making specific efforts to build the new admission building to environmentally conscious standards, a university professor said.

Engineering professor Robert Bittle said his thermal system design class was invited to tour the construction site for the building, which is on track to be the third Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certified structure on campus. The building will also be the first on campus to utilize geothermal energy for power, specifically for the pumps used to heat the building, he said.

“(The class is) looking at different aspects of the design process for putting these systems in place,” Bittle said.

Bittle said he was impressed by the fact that the ground source heat pumps systems would be indoors, which will prevent damage from the elements. Heating units for the average house or building are often outside, he said.

Baird, Hampton & Brown Inc., the engineering and surveying group working on the project, released a diagram outlining the way ground source heat pumps gather energy. According to the document, ground source heat pumps tap into the energy the earth gathers in order to power the system.

Patricia Braz, a senior mechanical engineering major and student in Bittle’s class, said she was interested in the project, but was not sure if it was financially feasible.

“It’s definitely beneficial to invest in something like this, but as far as the practicality of it being used more frequently, I don’t really see it because it’s very expensive,” Braz said. “I think before this really becomes something that everybody wants to use, they’re going to have to figure out a way to make it more economical.”

Braz said the project looks like it will have a positive impact on the environment, though.

“They’re not ignoring the environment that it could conflict with,” Braz said. “They’re doing a good job paying attention to how to use the environment to their advantage, but not take away from it.”

The tour provided an applicable example of alternative energy use, she said.

“It’s nice to come out here and see a real world application of conserving energy,” Braz said. “In the classroom, you learn all of these equations and you do all of these computations…what does that mean to me in the real world?”

Tom Hale, the project manager for the admission building construction, said there was a chance the building could receive LEED platinum certification, the highest certification possible. He said the building would be the first LEED platinum certified building in Fort Worth if it achieved the score.

“At this stage in the game, we’ve been asked to investigate our options (for platinum),” Hale said.

Even though the project will be expensive up front, Hale said, the payback will be worth the investment.

Hale said the admission building’s geothermal system will cost a premium of between $175,000 and $200,000 for initial installation. The cost figure is calculated by the number of wells installed at the site, Hale said.

“It will reduce the electrical bill by about 20 percent overall,” Hale said. “That 20 percent savings for a five-year period pays for the project.”

Contractors from Linbeck, the university’s contractor, said the building will be about 14,000 square feet with 73 geothermal wells buried 350 feet below the surface. The wells will produce energy to power the building, specifically for the heating, cooling and hot water systems.

Ian Bost, a mechanical engineer for Baird, Hampton & Brown Inc., said the system will heat to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a presentation to Bittle’s class, Bost said 30 percent of school districts in the area are currently using geothermal or are looking into it for the future. The Birdville, Keller, Frisco and Grand Prairie districts have used geothermal heat pump systems for years, while Lake Dallas, Fort Worth and Eagle Mountain each have at least one school utilizing the same technology.

“In 20 years, they will all be (geothermal),” Bost said.

Bost said geothermal energy is different from the average home heating or cooling system in that the heat is transferred to a continuous loop instead of the air.

Bost said the building will be monitored every 20 years to assure that the earth around it is not being damaged by excessive heat. He said the ground temperature should only increase by one or two degrees within that time period.