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Solar water-heating system a model for savings

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Mt. Healthy Elementary School is beginning to use solar power to heat water and save money, part of an initiative officials in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. hope leads to better energy efficiency in all of its schools.

And those same officials can’t wait to tell people about it online.

The new system, purchased and installed with a $67,000 grant from Hoosier Energy Rural Cooperative Inc., consists of six 4-by-10 solar panels on Mt. Healthy’s roof that are connected by pipes to two 120-gallon exchange tanks in the indoor maintenance room, said Charlie McCoy, the school corporation’s energy manager.

He said that on a sunny day, the system can produce 240,000 BTUs, which is enough to heat 480 gallons of water to 120 degrees at Mt. Healthy, 12150 S. State Road 58. And on days that aren’t as sunny, Mt. Healthy’s general electrical system can make up the heating difference.

BTUs represent the approximate amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

The system is expected to save the school district hundreds of dollars a week — a fact that will be trackable at a link on in the next few weeks.

McCoy said he hopes teachers from kindergarten through high school will use that up-to-the-minute efficiency report to teach students of all ages not only about technology, but also the importance of energy efficiency and how efficiency spares the environment and saves money.

School system officials are trying to cut energy consumption among all the school system’s buildings and have met with some success primarily through simple changes to operating systems and by asking teachers, custodians and others to do things like turn off lights when they leave.

The school district spent $2.8 million in energy between July 2011 and June 2012, which was $216,000 less than what it spent previously, McCoy said. He said the need for extra air conditioning during the extreme summer heat helped make the savings less than it could have been.

Officials have a set a goal of reducing the school’s energy footprint from 87,000 BTUs when the program began more than a year ago to 65,000 BTUs.

The heat exchange system at Mt. Healthy is the latest step toward the school system’s goal of achieving the greatly reduced figure by the end of the year.

A couple of things had to happen to make it a reality, McCoy said:

Hoosier Energy gave a $67,000 grant to the school district, which paid for the solar panel project which it otherwise couldn’t afford.

Mt. Healthy surfaced as the only viable home for the system, given its previous system was 10 years old and the Hoosier Energy grant was available only to areas served by Bartholomew County REMC.

McCoy said the grant covers maintenance for the next 25 years from Solar Technology, the Bloomington company that installed the system. He said the system should last 40 years.

He did not know specifically how much money the system would save the school corporation on electrical costs. He said an official from REMC will install meters to begin tracking its efficiency.

“Savings isn’t the only point,” McCoy said. “We’ll be reducing carbon emissions by hundreds of tons in the life of this thing.”

John Quick, superintendent of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., said Mt. Healthy’s heat exchange system is a great introduction to the rising popularity of solar energy as an alternative form of energy.

He said combining the system with an online educational component might make the school system even more receptive to solar opportunities in the future, as the technology matures.

“I do think we need to explore alternative energy sources,” he said. “When there’s zero cost, there’s no reason not to.”

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