Lipscomb beats the heat with cutting edge geothermal system

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Energy experts say Lipscomb is first university in Nashville to install geothermal cooling system to help save energy in heat wave

The nation has hit the dog days of summer with a vengeance in 2006, but 65 faculty in Lipscomb University’s new Ezell Center are beating the heat with a cutting-edge geothermal heating and cooling system that is more eco-friendly and is expected to save more than $70,000 per year in energy costs.

Lipscomb broke ground on the 77,000-square-foot Ezell Center in March 2005. Faculty have already moved into the $10.5 million building which will host classes this fall. The grand opening for the Ezell Center will be held Sept. 18.

But before classes start in earnest, while the nation suffers under a heat wave, Lipscomb faculty and staff are enjoying the benefits of a $1.2 million environmentally friendly geothermal system that uses the constant sub-surface ground temperature to provide heating and cooling. The system reduces greenhouse gas emissions, uses 40-60 percent less energy than a standard heat pump and is endorsed by the federal Energy Star program for energy efficiency.

According to records from the Tennessee Valley Authority, about 34 geothermal systems have been installed with TVA technical assistance, in commercial buildings in the Greater Nashville area since 1989. Lipscomb is the only university in Nashville proper listed. The vast majority of those projects are in county schools.

“Lipscomb is really leading the way,” said Blake Neville of Neville Engineering, who designed a portion of Lipscomb’s geothermal system. Whereas other county schools systems, such as Sumner County, are requiring geothermal systems for all new construction, Davidson County schools has not jumped on the geothermal bandwagon yet, energy experts say.

“It’s working better than I ever expected,” said Don Johnson, Lipscomb’s director of facilities said of the cooling system in the last week of July when staff were moving belongings into 69 brand-new offices. “A computerized management system tells us the temperature in any given space in the building and each office will have its own thermostat to allow specific temperature control.”

More specific temperature control plus the geothermal heat pump add up to big savings in heating and cooling bills for Lipscomb, up to $90,000 per year. The system was installed by Lee Mechanical of Nashville, and the Ezell building was constructed by D.F. Chase Construction of Nashville. 

Geothermal heat pumps rely primarily on the Earth’s natural thermal energy to heat and cool water underground. In Lipscomb’s case, it involves 144 wells sunk 300 feet below the softball field adjacent to the new building, Johnson said. The system pumps water through the wells, which are warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than above-ground temperatures.

Then electric heat pumps in the ceiling add the last bit of warmth or cooling needed to make the air comfortable for building residents, Johnson said. The in-ceiling heat pumps are localized, which allows for the higher level of control.

Although the system costs more on the front end, the savings in energy bills will pay back the difference in five to seven years. Because it takes longer to pay back the cost of the capital, geothermal systems have not been as attractive to commercial builders looking to make a quick profit, Neville said. So schools and universities have really taken the lead in applying the concept in Middle Tennessee, he said.

TVA lists 13 colleges with geothermal systems throughout the Tennessee Valley, which includes portions of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Kentucky.

According to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, nearly 600 schools in 39 states have installed geothermal systems. In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report encouraging schools to consider installing geothermal, considered the most-environmentally friendly and energy-efficient technology available.

Johnson said Lipscomb plans to continue installing geothermal systems in its future buildings, and other environmental projects are also under consideration, such as installing greenery on rooftops to prevent energy loss from building roofs, a system to recapture rain water to use for irrigation and using more hybrid cars in the university’s fleet of automobiles.