Operators of commercial pools like the one pictured above expect builders and engineers to present them with heating solutions that are both cost-conscious and environmentally friendly.
Operators of commercial pools like the one pictured above expect builders and engineers to present them with heating solutions that are both cost-conscious and environmentally friendly.

When Douglas Ecker was contracted to redesign the electrical system for a California school, he knew he’d have to take energy efficiency into account.

“They had [asked us] to make improvements that were good for the environment,” said the project manager for Hartigan Foley General Building Contractors Inc. in Ventura, Calif.

But Ecker’s team reached above and beyond their usual creativity and developed a solution that not only powered the school efficiently, but also heated the school’s showers — and its 300,000-gallon competition pool — using only exhaust.

“We added a 65 kW microturbine — roughly the size of a trash can — that generates 30 to 40 percent of the power for the whole campus,” Ecker explained. The engineers then attached a heat exchanger to the top of the turbine, allowing its excess heat to raise the temperature of the pool building, its showers and the competition pool.

“It can raise the water temperature about one-and-a-half to two degrees per day,” Ecker said.

Unusual as this project might seem, it’s actually part of an emerging trend among pool customers. As the prices of electricity and gas continue to rise in many areas, schools and other commercial clients — and even some residential consumers — are increasingly pushing for innovative, green solutions.

“A lot of our [residential] customers are really cutting-edge as far as new technology like smart houses, solar energy and all the ‘green’ stuff,” said Jeff Robinson, sales manager at Dolphin Pools & Spas in Salt Lake City.

To meet these customers’ expectations, Robinson and other Mountain-state builders have turned to geothermal heating, which passes naturally hot underground water through a heat exchanger to heat homes and pools. Though these systems are only viable in regions with natural underground heat sources, customers in those areas are showing an increasing interest in geothermal heat.

“We’ve seen a 25- to 30-percent growth in interest in these systems over the past few years,” Robinson said. “A lot more customers are proactively calling in to ask us about them.”

Geothermal heat consumes approximately as much electricity as a heat pump or a solar pool heating system — but experts say it’s most energy-efficient when considered as just one element in a hybrid heating solution.

“We market it as a component in a system that may incorporate solar energy, variable-speed pumps, automatic covers, LED lighting and other energy-saving options,” Robinson said, explaining that the prospect of a ‘green’ home often excites customers far more than a single energy-efficient device does.