Heating Water the Solar Way—Lynchburg College Makes the Switch

Issue: August 2011 by in Going Green, Inside The Magazine

Lynchburg College recently began collecting sun rays as part of a solar water heating system. Installation officials estimate it will pay for itself in less than a decade and save thousands of dollars. Ironically, the solar look is a retro one for the college, which had a solar water heater installed on Montgomery Hall, a co-ed dorm, from the mid-1970s until energy costs dropped in the early 1990s, when the system was replaced with electric heaters.

But today, with energy costs only headed in one direction for the foreseeable future, officials at the college decided to give solar a second chance. Which isn’t to say that saving money was the only reason they went back.

Plenty of campuses nationwide are making a push toward “greening” buildings and student life, not only to save money, but because more students are weighing schools, in part, on how institutions address sustainability. Lynchburg College’s (LC) is currently wrapping up what has been a $4.6 million, 18-month run of green-vamping of their facilities. As part of the 21-point plan, the college focused on saving water (5.8 million toilets flushes a year saved!), installed energy-saving light bulbs and put electricity and water meters on each dorm to separately monitor usage.

LC’s solar system will service hot water for the more than 250 students. And, it should annually satisfy, in theory, 70 percent of the dorm’s hot water needs, Dave Fisher, LC’s physical plant director, said.

“If this works, we’ll do it on another building,” Fisher said.

The new system is backed up by the old electric water heaters, which will carry the hot-water-making load should the solar heater not be able to produce enough in cloudy weather.

“Those things work just as well in January as they do in July,” Ronnie Unrue, Affordable Energy Concepts’ project manager, said. “What we’re looking for is sunshine.”

The college estimates the new system should pay for itself in nine years and was financed halfway by a grant from the DuPont Foundation. LC picked up the rest of the $90,000 tab. Fisher said the system could last 30 years before it needs replacing.

Local builder David Wall’s (Wall Construction) Madison Heights-based Affordable Energy Concepts did the solar install—the company’s largest solar heater project to date. Unrue says the systems are finding a market, which is a good business to be in with the construction market still recovering sluggishly.

“One reason we got into the solar was to ring the cash register,” Unrue said. Although, he added of Wall, “He wants to do all these things and he wants to make them affordable.”

You may not remember the first solar water heating panels on Montgomery Hall because they were laid along a flat roof. But a couple of years ago, when the dorm needed roof repairs, the college decided to pitch the roof and now the system is visible, perched along the new incline.

Fisher says the system will garner attention but will not take away from the nearby aesthetics of LC’s chapel or The Dell, the college’s outdoor common ground.

“We don’t want it to be invisible,” Fisher said. “We want people to know what we’re doing.”

How the Solar Water Heater Works

Basically, the evacuated tube solar thermal water heating system works within a closed-loop like this: There are sun-ray-catching tubes mounted on the roof. The tubes have a heat pipe inside them, containing a gas that reacts to sunlight, not temperature, so the system works year-round. Those tubes magnify the sunlight roughly 1,000 times and when the gas hits its boiling point, it rises to heat a corn glycol/water mixture passing by in copper pipes. From there, the system travels to the dorm’s basement where cold city water is heated by the thermal radiation of the glycol-filled pipes. Finally, the heated water flows into a 1,000-gallon tank where it waits for somebody in the dorm to turn on the water.

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