U’s Sill Center pushes sustainable building efforts

Watch a multimedia video about the University of Utah’s Sill Center and their sustainability efforts.

Story and multimedia by JENNA LEVETAN

Construction all over campus causes students to pay a $17 fee in their tuition every semester. But one older building is adding new and innovative methods to save money and also energy.

The Sterling Sill Center is where the office of undergraduate studies is located and is a leader in housing sustainable projects on campus. It has solar panels on top of the building, organic gardens in front and the most recent project is in their backyard and is called an ice ball.

The ice ball is an experiment that could be a breakthrough in air conditioning.  The experiment is happening 40 feet underground behind the building. Professor Kent Udell spearheaded the idea of the ice ball with students from the department of mechanical engineering. An ice ball is a method of taking the cold winter air and saving it underground.

There are 19 pipes sticking out of the ground behind the building called thermosyphines. The pipes are what bring the cold air down underground.

“The basic concept is that we are trying to TIVO the seasons.  We are trying to store the winter cold that we are experiencing right now, take advantage of it in summer and get free air conditioning,” Udell said.

A special coolant fluid similar to Freon is put into the pipes that have both the liquid and vapor phase. The liquid is in the bottom of the pipes and the vapor is on top.

“What happens in the winter is that when the temperature outside drops below the temperature underground, that liquid in the bottom starts to boil.  As it boils the vapors come up, go to the condenser, condense, and the liquid runs back down. Then comes summer and we reverse it,” Udell said.

When the cold liquid comes back into the ground, it freezes the soil around the pipes, forming what people are calling an ice ball. The cold liquid will be pumped into the air conditioner and will be used to cool the building as the ice ball melts. The ice ball will grow to be about 35 feet in diameter.

Sill Center employees are hoping to use the energy gained by their solar panels to pump the liquid into the air conditioner making the ice ball truly environmentally friendly by using no electricity at all. St. Andrew personally asked Udell to use the backyard of the Sill Center for the ice ball.

“If this works it has immense potential for saving lots and lots of money and preventing a lot of pollution. And if it works hopefully we can expand the idea and not only change the way this building gets its air conditioning, but the world,” said St. Andrew.

Building the ice ball has cost just over $20,000, but Udell believes that the cost of installing the ice ball will be paid back in three years with all the money the school will save in air conditioning bills and it should last for decades.

The installation is now complete and Udell hopes it to be operational by summer 2011. If the ice ball turns out to be successful, Udell will work on a similar but separate project to keep the warm summer air stored to help them heat the building during the winter.

Another green project the Sill Center houses are the solar panels that were installed in December 2009. There are 30 plates of solar panels on the roof with three rows of 10. It only cost the university about $17,000 out of pocket to buy and install them after they got a grant from Rocky Mountain Power.

“We got a grant through Rocky Mountain Power for $30,000,” said Mark St. Andrew, assistant dean of undergraduate studies. “It is going to take us nearly 50 years to pay off these panels in the amount of energy that they are going to produce.”

Though the goal of solar panels are to save energy, the ones at the Sill Center produce much less then some may think.

According to the data from the Rocky Mountain energy manager, last year the panels only produced three percent of what the building uses in a year. The university will be in debt to the panels for so long because of the large out of pocket expense for the panels and the small dent of energy they actually produce.

The panels are only guaranteed to last for 30 years, meaning the university may be paying for them for nearly 20 years after they are gone. The employees at the Sill Center are aware that there are some conservative fiscal people who think they were a waste of money, but they stand by their decision of getting them because even without a return on investment the panels get people talking about alternative sources of energy.

The organic garden is a project funded by the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund. When Alex Parvas, founder of gardens, asked the Sill Center if she could grow the gardens in front of the building there they were more then pleased to say yes.

“The gardens are perfect at the Sill Center,” said Parvas. “Once they get fully in bloom it is going to be really pretty and hopefully a conversation starter since the building is so central on campus.”

The Sill Center and garden coordinators have also set up a patio area along side the building so students and faculty can have a spot on campus to picnic around the gardens.

The Sill Center will continue to look for innovative ways to improve sustainability on campus and remains optimistic about the future.

“There is no overall plan or master plan that we have hatched,” St. Andrew said. “It is just stuff that makes sense to do.”