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Town building retrofit declared a success

State representatives tour near-completed project

January 21, 2011
BETHLEHEM- Making a town building more energy efficienct doesn't have to cost the taxpayers money, but can still yield big savings down the road. This is the lesson Bethlehem's Energy Committee's efforts to retrofit the town building into a more efficient – and more comfortable – space has taught.

"The Bethlehem Energy Committee has been fantastic in being, by far, one of the most progressive groups in the region," said Shad Lawton of NH NRG, of Lisbon, who was involved in the project.

The Bethlehem Energy Committee, spearheaded by Chair David Van Houten and Member Melissa Elander, has spent the last two years making the building that holds the town offices, library, police department, fire department, recreation department, and public meetings more energy efficient. The project has cost about $100,000 in its entirety, but thanks to a little luck and a lot of volunteer hours, none of that had come from the taxpayers' pockets, aside from a small administrative fee used to advertise for a contract,.

"Everybody's put in so much time and effort that it's time to recognize it," said Van Houten last Thursday when the committee and engineers conducted a tour of the building, showcasing the project, which is 80 percent completed, to representatives from the funding sources. They were not disappointed.

"It's honestly been a real pleasure to work with people like David and Melissa and the whole town," said Dari Sassan, EECBG Coordinator at the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning. "You know we have 100 plus grants around the state, and it's great to see one of the first to wrap up be so successful."

Pamela Monroe, Compliance Bureau Administrator at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES), agreed.

"Both of you need to be commended," said Monroe.

The measures should save the town money in both heating and electricity costs, said Van Houten, though the exact savings are hard to determine at this point. As one of the stipulations of the grant, the committee has to keep records on how much it costs to heat the building for three years following the retrofit, and therefore, will be able to better determine savings after more time has passed. Van Houten hopes the "efficiency paradox," which he explains is when people with a more efficient system use more energy for no savings, does not happen.

"We've really just started. The big thing is changing people's habits," said Van Houten, adding that energy inefficiency does not come from people being lazy, but rather people not being used to certain measures.

"That's something that needs to become part of the culture, and that's a tall order," said Van Houten.

In 2009, the Bethlehem Energy Committee received a windfall of sorts when Pine Tree Power accidentally exceeded emission levels and opted to redirect some of its DES pollution fine into local municipal work. This sent $69,525 into the hands of the energy committee.

The energy committee began by using $7,000 of that money to conduct energy audits on several municipal buildings: in addition to the town building, the Bethlehem Elementary School, the highway department, and the historical museum. Though the school was declared the least efficient of the bunch, the committee decided to focus on the town building for its first project as it falls under the umbrella of the town rather than the school, and so many town services are dependent on it.

The committee set to work doing the small-scale fixes it could manage without professional help, such as weather-stripping some exterior doors and windows. Also, Public Service of New Hampshire funded half of a lighting upgrade for the building.

During the process, it became apparent that the oil boiler that had been heating the building for 10 years needed to be replaced, not just in the name of energy efficiency, but because it had not been well-maintained over the years and was on its last leg. The committee applied for and received a $47,000 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) – awarded in March – that has paid for the boiler replacement.

The committee chose to replace the old oil boiler with two propane boilers, which have been in operation in the town building for a month now. The propane burns clearer, functioning at 97 percent efficiency, explained John Waitt of Design Day Mechanical out of Jaffrey. Waitt replaced the boiler and revamped the heating distribution system.

The two propane boilers work in conjunction with each other, explained Waitt, taking turns to heat the building. They also turn on and off automatically based on whether they are needed. This will extend their lives, which are both under warranty for 12 years.

It means nothing to heat the building efficiently if the heat quickly escapes outside, so the energy committee also had to focus on sealing the building– not a small task, considering the building is roughly a century old and some of the building had not been worked on since its initial construction.

Much of the buildings exterior "insulation" consisted of the two-inch pocket of air between a pair of exterior brick walls. When the energy audit was completed, the amount of air seeping out of the building was compared to the amount of air that would leave a two-by-two foot hole.

NH NRG was hired for the air-sealing work. Projects included replacing or retrofitting the building's windows; professionally weather-stripping all exterior doors and windows; and installing a damper in the fire station exhaust fan. They also worked to create an air seal between the fire station and the rest of the building, and to better insulate the most susceptible spots in the building – such as a closet wall that routinely had ice on its interior during the winter months, and primarily the roof of the building.

Both the boiler work completed by Waitt and the air-sealing work completed by Lawton were made more complicated by the grant stipulation that all work must maintain the historical importance of the building, and all material used must be made in the United States.

The final step of the process will be to separate the heating into seven zones, each monitored and controlled by its own thermostat. Right now, for example, if the three people in the selectmen's office want to stay warm, they need to heat the entire top floor, including the expansive meeting room. This is neither convenient, nor energy efficient, said Waitt. The work of creating the seven separate zones for the building will be done in the spring, as the system needs to be drained for the work to be completed. After that, the more than two-year project will be finished – though the energy committee will not.

"I think that it's time for us to move away from this and start on the elementary school," said Van Houten, who is also thinking about pursuing a solar project once it gets warmer. These two potential projects should keep the committee of volunteers busy for a while.

"Municipal work is difficult. It's very time-consuming. You need to get a lot of people involved," said Van Houten – highlighting one of the many challenges that come with energy committee work, but also represented the possibility of what can happen when a few committed people come together and use the resources available to them.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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