As Steve Billings will tell you, running the first coach-owned swim team in North Carolina doesn’t exactly come with an instruction manual.“Essentially, we built the plane first, and then had to learn how to fly it .”
Located just outside Charlotte, NC in the town of Huntersville, the 30,000square foot family-owned and operated NOMAD Aquatic Facility opened its doors in 1991. Inside sits a 25-yard by 25-meter competition pool, with a smaller instructional “warm pool” of 20- x 15-yards around the corner. The space is also shared by a fitness center and racquetball courts.
A longtime dream of Steve and wife Myra’s, NOMAD has grown over the past 21 years to be much more than just a home for the “Aqua Devils,” Coach Billings’ perennial powerhouse of a swim-team. With over 4,000total members, use of the pools range from full-blown competitive meets for the team’s 300-plus swimmers, to open swimming, to water aerobics.In addition, NOMAD hosts Learn-to-Swim classes for about 600 future Devils.
The Turning Point
For the Billings, heating the two indoor pools was a necessary evil.Though competition rules state pools must be maintained at just 79 degrees Fahrenheit,being indoors means neither pool receives any warmth from natural sunlight. For years, the cost of running their large natural gas heater was viewed as an unavoidable operating cost for NOMAD – just another expense on the balance sheet. But as energy prices skyrocketed, heating the pools with fossil fuel became increasingly expensive. “At their worst, our bill ran upwards of $12,000 every month,” recalls Steve. He knew there had to be a way to offset the cost of his existing heater.
After attending a presentation on solar pool heating, Steve started to see it as a good potential investment in his facility. “I would say I had some misconceptions as far as cost went, up till thatpoint. As I learned more about the technology, the investment seemed more and more like a no-brainer.” As if he didn’t have enough incentive to add solar, Steve learned the state of North Carolina offered a 35% tax credit on new commercial solar pool heater installations, which would reduce the payback period even further. For Steve and for NOMAD, thetime to act was now.
With his new understanding of cost and payback, Billings reached out to a local solar contractor. As is the case with most commercial bids, the contractor enlisted the assistance of the nearest Aquatherm Regional Distribution Center for technical support – including system sizing and pump-house schematics. Solar Services, Aquatherm’s Regional Distribution Center in Virginia Beach, was happy to help, and soon Steve Was presented with a proposal to install 169 4-foot by 12-foot SolarIndustries Collectors on the roof of the NOMAD facility.
On average, commercial solar pool heating installations pay for themselves in approximately five-to-seven years. Taking into account existing heating costs at NOMAD, the $200,000 solar system was projected to pay for itself in less than half that time, thanks to the state tax credit and ability to sell solar renewable energy credits (SRECs)back to the state utility. SRECs represent the environmental attributes from a solar facility, and are produced each time a solar system produces one thousand Killowatt-hours (KWh)of production. In order to produce SRECs, a solar system must first be certified by state regulatory agencies – usually public service commissions or public utility commissions –before a state-authorized registry can create and track SRECs.
Next, since the output of solar thermal (heating) systems are measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs)rather than Killowatt-hours (as in solar electric systems),determining energy production is accomplished throughthe use of a BTU flow-meter. The system at NOMAD is fitted with an ISTEC® flow-meter, which measures the amount of BTUs (thermal energy) the solar system provides when operating.
With one kilowatt hour equivalent to 3,412 BTUs,and each one of the 169 solar collectors capable of producing 48,000 BTUs daily, the system has a daily production capacity of approximately 8 million BTUs(or 2,300 Kwh). Again, with an SREC awarded each time a solar system produces 1,000 Kwh, the system at NOMAD can produce over 50 SRECs every 4weeks in season.
So what’s the bottom line? The SRECs produced by the NOMAD solar pool heating system translate to revenues of nearly $40,000 each and every year. For The Billings, whose investment has already paid for itself since its installation in 2007, have used the additional income from their SRECS to finance a supplementary wood-burning heater for use in the coldest months of the year. “We heat the pools using the solar almost exclusively most of the year, but when it starts dropping below freezing we can switch on the wood-burning heater when we need it,” says Billings, who decided to keep the original natural gas heater, albeit as purely a back up to his two main forms heating.
“It’s really about as simple as it gets,” says Steve of operating the system. “You just wouldn’t believe how well it works.”