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Burlingame feeling toasty with its

Aspen Times Staff Report

At the end of their first season, solar hot-water systems at the new Burlingame affordable housing project are working well and saving money.

Each of the Burlingame project’s five buildings has its own system, which provides hot water. The systems, installed by Aspen Solar Systems, are working famously, said architect Erik Hendrix, who worked on the project.

Natural gas-fired boilers at the complex are not operating very often because solar-heated water has been adequate for almost all the project’s needs in the first few months of operation.

“Actually, they’re working very well,” Hendrix said. “The boilers are barely turning on.”

The housing project, built along State Highway 82 next to the Maroon Creek Club golf course, was ready for occupancy in June, just in time for the Music Associates of Aspen’s music school summer session. The complex, which can house 192 music students or local workers when full, has four residential buildings and a commons building with laundry facilities and other amenities.

Each of the four residential buildings has four 4-by-10-foot solar panels on a rack above its roof, and the common building has six 4-by-8-foot panels. Mike Tierney, co-owner of Aspen Solar Systems, said a liquid called propylene glycol circulates through panels, where it is heated by the sun. Pipes containing the propylene glycol, a nontoxic fluid used in shampoos and some food products, are used to heat two 120-gallon tanks of water in each building.

On a sunny summer day, Tierney said, one of the systems can heat 240 gallons of water to 150 or 160 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the day. Water heaters that heat water used for showering or dish-washing are commonly set at around 130 degrees, so the solar-heated water passing through the boilers doesn’t require any added heating. In fact, the water must be mixed with cold water in automatic mixing valves.

Tierney said the utility cost savings provided by the solar systems are expected to pay for the cost of the systems in about 10 years. The initial cost was about $10,000 per building, much of it provided through the city of Aspen’s Renewable Energy Mitigation Program.

The REMP, which started at the beginning of this year, assigns each new construction project an energy budget. If developers of new houses want to build energy-using amenities such as hot tubs or snow-melt driveways, they may mitigate the energy loss either by installing renewable energy-producing devices on site or by paying cash to the city. The cash is to be used by the city for renewable energy projects on affordable housing such as Burlingame or the upcoming Seventh and Main project.

The savings in water heating cost at Burlingame is expected to be between $1,000 and $1,200 per year, Tierney said. Of course, that’s dependent on the sun.

“Solar hot-water systems have the quickest payback of any renewable energy system,” Tierney said. It’s unfortunate, he said, that so many developers are concerned only with the short term and are turned off by the high capital cost of energy-saving systems.

Mortgage bankers, on the other hand, like renewable energy features.

“It’s pretty cool,” Tierney said, “you can qualify for both a lower mortgage rate and a larger mortgage amount with renewable energy.”

Solar systems are better now than in the past, when they received a reputation for being unreliable.

“We’ve come to realize through experience what works,” Tierney said. “Systems still being manufactured now are solid. There’s really no disadvantage that I can see in this climate.”

The Burlingame systems’ good performance during the summer is cause for optimism for the winter, too. While the summer’s warmth reduces the amount of heat lost, the system should also work well in winter, because the solar panels are oriented to make the best use of the sun’s angle in winter, Hendrix said.

“On a year-round average, we’re looking at 75 to 80 percent of the hot water needed to be supplied by solar energy,” Tierney said.


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