by Adam King

Scott Conlon, director of projects for Ohio State University (OSU) Facilities Design and Construction, smiles as he talks about cheating the system. It sounds a bit dastardly, but circumventing a standard practice will actually save Ohio State hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

And frankly, cheating a building’s chiller system is nothing to feel guilty about. It’s merely putting more than 50 years of solid engineering principles into practice.

In its current iteration, a chiller system takes heat from the water and makes it colder. The cold water is used to cool the building in the summer months for air conditioning, and the heat extracted by the chiller is typically expelled to the outside air as waste. In the colder months, hot water is produced by typically burning a fossil fuel to heat the buildings.

But Ohio State’s cheat – a heat pump that sends the water through a series of 6-inch-diameter holes bored into the ground – allows Mother Earth to keep the water at a constant temperature of about 54 degrees. These geothermal wells allow buildings to conserve energy, and use less capital equipment for heating and cooling, which lowers maintenance costs.

This relatively constant temperature allows the heat pump to add heat to the ground in the summer and then extract the heat in the winter, similar to charging a battery and then using the energy at a later date.

The two current projects that will use these wells, the South High Rises Renovation and Addition (Park/Stradley, Smith/Steeb and Siebert halls), and William Hall Complex, each expect to realize a 32-percent energy savings and a combined minimum cost savings of $415,000 annually.

The 147 wells adjacent to Hale Hall, which will feed the South High Rise project, will be completed in May. The parking lot formerly adjacent to Hale Hall will be turned into a green space called the Hale Green, which will be sodded and ready for use by the autumn semester. No structures can be built on top of the wells, so it will remain green space. As part of the planning, Hale Hall eventually could come down to create one large green space that stretches out from the South Oval.

The South Oval’s 259 wells won’t be complete until May 2013, and the South Oval currently is scheduled for an October 2013 opening, although Conlon says that the project team is working hard to find opportunities to expedite that schedule.

The William Hall Complex wells are being drilled in an inner courtyard, and are nearly complete.

“If we weren’t using geothermal for these projects, we would be using steam, and by using geothermal instead, we can reserve the steam capacity for future projects,” Conlon says. “But we’ll use virtually no steam for the heating and cooling in these buildings, and that’s not even calculated in the savings.”

The drilling was expected to be finished sooner, but hit a snag when it became evident that the drilling method was not compatible with the subsurface conditions at the South Oval.

OSU hired a new drilling firm that is employing mud rotary. The new firm started on the Hale project, and will restart the South Oval drilling this spring.

“While the extended closure of the South Oval is disappointing for everyone, this commitment to geothermal reinforces the university’s leadership position regarding energy savings and sustainability,” Conlon says.  “It will not always be an easy path, but it is worthwhile.”

Geothermal wells have been used on one prior project, the Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Building, which earned a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver designation. But the wells weren’t as numerous there as in the current projects because the 4-H building is smaller.

Conlon says that people should expect to see more geothermal wells added as more projects are approved.

  The North Residential District, for example, which currently is in a conceptual study phase, and is to include 3,200 new student beds, dining options and a small recreation center, has green space being planned that could support geothermal wells. And the planning envisioned in the One Ohio State Framework Plan includes places along the Olentangy River OSU could look to add wells to support potential new academic growth around St. John Arena.

While geothermal wells are fairly new to Ohio State, the federal government and the U.S. Military have been using the technology successfully for more than 50 years. Numerous other colleges and universities also are taking advantage of the wells’ benefits.

“Because we’re adding so much energy consumption via air-conditioning to the South Residential halls (which didn’t have A/C before), it would have been very difficult to meet our own green-build policy if we hadn’t done geothermals,” Conlon says. “It has really had a huge impact.”

This article is provided courtesy of Ohio State University Communications.