What’s Hogging All The Energy?

With the right mix of expert consulting and financing, city officials can reap thousands of dollars in annual energy savings from community recreation centers with little or no up-front cost.

Because of their unique attributes and as large consumers of energy, recreation centers present the greatest opportunity for energy savings, even for centers built within the last decade.

But there’s more to this than just saving a buck. Building “green” and limiting our carbon footprint is vitally important for citizens throughout the country. Reducing energy use in recreation centers–the number-one energy hog among public buildings–honors a community’s environmental ethic, even during dismal economic times.

Another plus for recreation center managers is that the sizeable energy savings can be obtained without any diminishment of customers’ enjoyment.

Green Is Misunderstood

One of the biggest obstacles to increasing efficiency has traditionally been concern over the cost-benefit ratio. In a survey we conducted at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture late last year of 220 recreation-center professionals across the country, nearly 75 percent said their communities considered “being green” “very important.” But 50 percent of the survey participants said the biggest obstacle to becoming greener was concern about the cost.

After designing more than 150 community recreation centers throughout the country, our firm has discovered the concern over cost-benefit ratio is often misplaced. Traditional financial metrics–such as return on investment–tend to undervalue the benefits of energy-saving strategies, particularly in a weak economy.

The energy savings, or the “benefit” in the cost-benefit ratio, are frequently greater than most people realize. Buildings consume more than three-quarters of all the electricity produced by American power plants. And among public buildings, recreation centers use more energy per-square-foot than schools, hospitals and even convention centers.

It is important to understand, however, that recreation centers are complex facilities providing a mix of activities in varied settings to many people at the same time. Spaces that distinguish a recreation center from other buildings include natatoriums, aerobics rooms, locker rooms and two-story open spaces that present complex ventilation, heating and humidification problems. They are also open long hours.

Because of these unique features, strategies that may save energy in other buildings don’t necessarily work for recreation centers.

A Balanced Diet

So, where do community officials and facility operators begin in their quest to wean recreation centers from an excessive diet of energy consumption? That question and others were asked of expert engineers, facility operators and city officials recently assembled for a two-day conference on saving energy.

These experts agreed the first step to saving energy is to find out how and where the energy is being consumed, and at what price per unit, by conducting a comprehensive energy audit or re-commissioning of the recreation center. The audit’s purpose is to discover if the facility’s various mechanical systems and equipment are performing as originally intended, as well as seeing if new technology is available to provide additional energy savings.

Mechanical systems account for approximately two-thirds of the total energy use in an average 60,000-square-foot recreation center. Lighting consumes roughly one-quarter of the annual energy use. Recreation centers with natatoriums can spend as much as a third of their energy dollars heating and sanitizing the swimming pool water, and providing warm, clean air in the indoor swimming environment.

Implementing the recommendations of a thorough energy audit can often reduce a recreation center’s annual energy bill by 30 percent or more.

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