A Veteran’s affair

Reno’s VA hospital is making its federal facility a greener one

From left, Darin Farr and David Gisi look at newly installed solar panels at Reno’s VA hospital.

From left, Darin Farr and David Gisi look at newly installed solar panels at Reno’s VA hospital.

Photo By kat kerlin

The VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System is at 1000 Kirman Ave. For more information, see www.reno.va.gov.

Many homeowners who install solar panels, wind turbines or other energy-saving features are taking a calculated risk on their rate of return. They’re betting that they’ll stay in their homes long enough to save more on energy than they spent on renewable energy installations. For certain buildings, however, it’s pretty much a sure thing.

Institutions like schools, government facilities, and hospitals are finding it makes sense to invest in renewable energy. A recent example is the veterans affairs hospital, the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, in Reno.

Three main green energy projects are underway or were recently completed at the facility—the original building of which dates back to 1938, enough time to pass up the typical 15-year return on investment many home solar installations require nearly five times over.

The projects “lower our operating costs for this facility, which makes us more responsible government and allows more to go back into our services for veterans,” says spokesperson Darin Farr.

The first project addressed the million gallons of water per year the hospital was losing through its condensate system. About six months ago, VA engineers checked the system for leaks and found the condensate pumps weren’t working correctly, among other issues.

“Some places were just dumping condensate,” says mechanical engineer David Gisi, referring to the fluid that results from condensation. “We’re capturing the condensate. I think we’ve cut our water use down by 80 or 90 percent.”

Another project is taking a cue from the Peppermill casino, which was sitting on enough geothermal energy to heat the entire resort. The hospital plans to drill for geothermal power. An earlier test hole came up a bit cooler than hospital engineers hoped for, though the potential for it at the site remains. VA engineers think geothermal power could help the boilers heat sections of the hospital.

And currently sitting on the roof covering the main hospital building is half of a football field’s worth of silicon solar panels. Installation of the panels, which will produce about 84 amps, began last year and was completed just last week. The VA expects it to go online in about a month. But it isn’t stopping there. A much bigger project is underway for the hospital’s parking garage. What are now pilings poking into the sky will soon hold 1,900 solar panels that are expected to produce about 850 amps#8212;enough to run two of the hospital’s chillers for four to five hours.

“It takes about two and a half chillers to cool our hospital on a hot day, and this will run two of them,” says project engineer Phil Feiler.

The $2.8 million solar projects reflect the Obama administration’s priority on making federal buildings green buildings. There’s more funding for such projects than there has been in the recent past. The idea is to reduce government spending by lowering the operations cost of the buildings.

“It saves your money and my money, and it gives us more money for our veterans,” says engineer technician Joe Shackelford.