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Geothermal Problems Could Shut Down Cooling System at Mission Critical Green Building

Sussex County Delaware EOC

A malfunctioning geothermal heating and cooling system at the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center in Georgetown, Delaware has officials scrambling for a temporary solution before the summer heat begins in earnest.

The $13 million, 18,000-square-foot facility opened in 2008 and was heralded as energy-efficient green building that could respond to large emergency events even during dangerous weather. The structure was designed to withstand wind loads of up to 120 miles per hour. But the facility is now in danger of its air conditioning shutting down and the oppressive Delaware summer damaging its millions of dollars of state-of-the-art electronics equipment.

To function properly, that equipment needs constant air conditioning which is provided by the geothermal system. The closed-loop system uses groundwater as its starting point, the temperature of which should range from 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But in recent weeks the water in the system’s 24, 600-foot-deep wells has ranged from 80 to 85 degrees. On more than one occasion it has even even topped 95. If the temperature reaches 100 to 105, the building’s air conditioning system will shut down. $2 million in county equipment and $2 million in state equipment could be in jeopardy.

Earlier this month, Sussex County approved a temporary generator to operate the building’s cooling systems while the problem is investigated (at a cost of $14,000 through Labor Day). Digging more wells or installing a permanent cooling tower would cost approximately $200,000. The county is also seeking advice from geothermal experts. More ominously, the county “will try to determine whether an engineering or design flaw contributed to the problem and, if any are found, will try to recover any costs.” Already the county engineer has publicly speculated whether the project’s designers factored in that the building would always need to be cooled “because of the amount of heat generated by equipment in the EOC. Possible litigation could center on that.”

Hopefully the issue can be resolved without any significant damage to the EOC or litigation. But as more green buildings that opened during the mid- to late-00s continue to operate, the odds that similar problems with other advanced building technologies could manifest themselves will increase.

We’ll keep an eye on the Suffolk County Emergency Operations Center as the summer proceeds and experts weigh in on possible solutions to the geothermal system’s woes.

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3 Responses to Geothermal Problems Could Shut Down Cooling System at Mission Critical Green Building

  1. Ujjval Vyas, Ph.D., J.D. June 25, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    Stephen,

    How odd that the designers for this mission critical project didn’t design backup for the cooling. This reminds me of the claim in which a designer went for daylighting LEED points in a military secure facility and designed a building that would allow anyone with binoculars to see top secret materials. Daylighting points vs. national security, not much of a contest if you were responding to your clients needs.

    I may be mistaken about this, but I was under the impression that the USGBC had decided that geothermal is not to be considered a renewable energy source, though there may be other ways to use geothermal to get points. Maybe someone out there knows the details.

    We don’t yet know the relevant details of this problem in Delaware, but once owners and clients stop worrying about the marketing angle and start insisting on the performance of the building, things will really change. It will also change for design professionals. I sure hope there isn’t a lot of email or other written traffic in this case that demonstrates that the designers (architects or engineers) engaged in active advocacy for a geothermal system without a back-up option. Not sure how the designers could say that they hadn’t addressed the problem of cooling back-up in a mission critical facility without sounding incompetent. Especially since in this case the design firm seems to have been mission critical facility specialists. On the other hand, if they did consider a back-up system, did the owner explicitly reject such a system after being fully informed about the risks by the design professional? This is a case well worth following in detail.

    But then again the cause of the screw-up could easily be an overly enthusiastic “sustainbility director” or “consultant” working for the owner that convinced an owner to forgo use of a back-up system to reduce the energy footprint or cost. Far too many sustainability advocates have been given positions in municipal and state agencies who make up for a lack of objective technical knowledge in their certitude and enthusiasm for all things green.

    I am aware of another case involving geothermal with similar facts which is going into litigation.

  2. Sustainable waste management October 11, 2011 at 2:17 am #

    Hi,
    i think the closed-loop system uses groundwater as its starting point, the temperature of which should range from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.Where you get this value 60 to 70 i think it 50 to 60.

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    [...] in the summer of 2011, the fluid in the system’s wells ranged from 80 to 85 degrees. It reached 95 degrees more than once. If it had reached 100 to 105 degrees, the system’s 110-ton [...]

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