Triangle cornering geothermal installations

February 9, 2009
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One of the area’s largest and oldest providers of construction services has quietly carved out a new industry niche.

While it might be a bit rash to claim that Triangle Associates Inc. leads the local field in managing the design and installation of geothermal heating and cooling systems, the firm has certainly chalked up an impressive list of completed projects over a short period of time in what is still an emerging area.

It was just eight years ago when Triangle directed its first geothermal project: for the Goodwillie Environmental School in the Forest Hills Public School District. Then came two elementary school projects in the Hudsonville public district and another public elementary school in the Kentwood district.

The company also managed the geothermal installations for the snow leopard exhibit at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and the Kalsbeek-Huizenga Residence Hall on the Calvin College campus. Triangle has two other geothermal projects in progress: One is being done for Genesis Housing and its senior housing complex at Heron Manor and the other is under way at 12th Street Elementary in the Portage Public School District.

And there are at least five more on Triangle’s to-do list. One is an elementary school in Portage and four are in the Wayland Public School District, a $40 million construction project that Triangle will manage that will result in 14 new buildings. The Wayland work starts this spring. Kevin Knoll and Scott Jernberg direct most of the geothermal installations.

Triangle Vice President and CBDO Mitch Watt said the firm became involved in geothermal energy at the request of clients who were engaged in the sustainable design movement, had an interest in LEED certification, and wanted to reduce operating costs through a more efficient heating- and-cooling system.

“We pretty much led the way in guiding them to those solutions,” said Watt, whose firm has been in business here since 1918 and does about $100 million in sales annually.

So far, most of the entities that have hired Triangle to design and install the system are public schools. These school officials see geothermal as an investment in their districts’ future, as a conservation effort, and as a way to cut operating expenses at a time when state funding on a per-pupil basis is either stagnant or being decreased. Plus, school officials can include a system’s price tag in their bond packages and repay that cost over decades.

“It’s an easy decision for many of the school districts when they look at the cost and amortize it over 30 years versus the savings they’re gaining every year. And that is much more prevalent than the idea of LEED certification,” said Watt.

“We don’t have too many school districts, other than a handful like the Forest Hills district, that have embraced the certification aspect of sustainable design. It really seems to be more driven from trying to save money on operational costs. They’d rather spend the money on teachers and good programs for the students than for heating the buildings.”

Watt said commercial projects haven’t jumped on the geothermal bandwagon because of the system’s higher cost. Geothermal can run up to $600,000 more to buy and install than the traditional heat-pump method. And with commercial credit being more difficult to obtain, developers aren’t readily willing to add that additional cost to a loan request at a time when lenders aren’t overly enthusiastic about financing real estate projects.

Still, Watt said geothermal is being considered for The Gallery on Fulton development being built as a LEED project at Division Avenue and Fulton Street.

Triangle is managing the work and is also a partner with CWD Real Estate Investment and RSC Associates in the $36 million project.

“We are certainly hoping that we can do that,” said Watt of adding geothermal to The Gallery.

“But one of the issues we have to consider is the added cost to implement those systems. In a commercial system, you have the added cost and you have the benefit of the energy savings in the long run. But in the current market, how do you fund that additional cost?”

Watt said banks weren’t exactly receptive to the geothermal idea before the project secured its financing. So the partners took the system out of their loan applications and decided to look for other ways to fund geothermal, which can reduce heating bills by as much as half and cut cooling charges by up to a third.

“We’re looking for other funding opportunities starting with selling carbon-offset credits. And we’re also looking at possible donors or other local investors that may be interested in investing their money in the geothermal system, and the payback to them would be the savings accrued from the geothermal heat system,” said Watt.

“We’re in the process now of doing an energy evaluation to calculate the exact savings annually that would be achieved from implementing the system. Then we can do a real payback analysis for the long-term viability of the system. But at first glance, it looks like from $40,000 to $50,000 a year in energy savings over a more traditional system. So we’re looking at a 10-year to 15-year payback,” he added.

If the partners are able to add geothermal to The Gallery, they won’t use the standard horizontal installation that has the pump and piping laid out in a grid below the frost line, where the earth’s natural warmth resides. In most cases, a horizontal system is buried about four feet beneath the surface. But because The Gallery is on a tight urban site, the geothermal wells will have to be installed vertically below the parking ramp on the west end of the property. And the system will have to go much deeper than the usual horizontal penetration of four feet.

“Well, it will vary depending on the actual conditions. But I think we’ll be going down about 400 feet. I’m going from memory, but I believe 400 feet is what we thought we had to go,” said Watt.

“It would be a unique installation and one that other folks would look at as a positive for urban projects.”

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