Seeing Green

Truck News

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – In the illustrious words of Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being green; a mantra Eric Lange knows all too well after spending months converting Lange Transportation and Storage’s Mississauga, Ont. facility into an environmentalist’s dream. Besides not being the simplest of processes, it wasn’t the cheapest one either, but Lange has remained steadfast in his belief that the long-term benefits of his project will be well worth the initial investment.

“The building was built during a period of time when builders and tenants alike didn’t think or care about energy usage as the cost of hydro and natural gas was so much lower. Society didn’t think about the carbon dioxide that was being released into the air,” Lange told Truck West. “We quickly realized that we needed to think outside the box and figure out how we could solve the issue of energy waste that our new home was creating.”

Lange’s fleet specializes in the movement and storage of time-sensitive, high-value freight, so operating at a high level of efficiency is the key to its business. Owning an energy-wasting building certainly didn’t fit into Lange’s master plan.

In order to find ways to make the building both environmentally- and user-friendly, Lange formed an advisory team to generate ‘green’ ideas for all areas of the building. Improving the building’s infrastructure would be a first for the company, which had always played the role of tenant and had never been in a position to make drastic changes before.

The team soon came up with various ways to minimize or eliminate the use of hydro and natural gas and also make the workplace healthier. But from the long list of possibilities, one idea stood out as something revolutionary.

After reading through a number of journals and trade publications, Lange had come across an article about a renewable energy source called ‘geothermal.’

The science of geothermal seemed simple enough. After clearing away 10 ft. of earth from the surface of a ‘bore field’ (any strip of land with enough space to house the geothermal system), holes would be drilled into the ground, where a system of pipes would be inserted. The pipes – whose numbers fluctuate based on the size of the area that needs to be heated/cooled – would carry a mixture of water and ethanol. When heat is desired, the mixture – which is sealed into the system and never needs replacing – would be warmed by the earth’s natural heat to about 50 F before being forced through a heat pump until reaching the desired temperature of about 72 F. From there, the heated air is spread with fans through the building’s normal ductwork. When cool air is desired, the process would be reversed. Warm air would be taken from the office area and warehouse back down to the earth and cooled to about 50 F before being pumped back up to the building.

Lange discovered that when the technology is implemented, the need for natural gas for heat and air conditioning is eliminated altogether.

However, while the trade publication listed examples of geothermal technology being used in a number of new homes and a handful of new office complexes, any examples of older commercial buildings using the technology were notably absent. As well, the price for a system that would support a building of Lange’s size would be a whopping $500,000.

Despite having to play the role of guinea pig and the hefty price of the system, Lange decided to push forward with the idea anyway after discovering the company actually had a number of things working to its advantage.

For starters, time. Though the building was purchased in July, Lange didn’t have to move in until December when lease agreements on the company’s old office and warehouse expired.

“We could take the time necessary to fix up the building and not worry about the mess we may create in the short-term, as long as in the long-term we ended up with a better facility,” Lange said.

Secondly, the building’s ancient heating and air conditioning system required an $180,000 replacement anyways, which meant “only” $320,000 of the half million investment would be over and above compulsory costs. As well, a geothermal system would mean no future natural gas bills, not to mention the huge savings of fossil fuels for the environment, so Lange could expect to recoup its losses in only a few years’ time.

With thoughts of future savings in mind, Lange hired a Guelph, Ont.-based company which had experience installing geothermal systems in both new homes and new office structures. But not long after initial consultations, it seemed as though Lange had caught a snag in their plans.

The company’s 70,000 sq.-ft. facility required ample land to lay the amount of pipe needed to sufficiently heat or cool the building – land which they did not have. A 300 ft. by 24 ft. bore field would be needed to drill the 28 necessary holes to power the facility. Just when things were looking grim, Lange noticed the building’s “out” driveway was in wretched shape and needed to be repaved anyways. Its size? A convenient 300 ft. by 24 ft.

Now that an appropriate bore field had been found, GeoSmart Energy of Cambridge, Ont. stepped in and began drilling holes through shale, rock, sand and water down to depths of up to 360 ft. After two and a half months of drilling, as well as many more weeks laying pipe and installing pumps, the job had finally been completed.

But while the installation of the geothermal system was underway, a series of other “hydro-friendly” projects were being completed to help offset the additional hydro required by the system’s pumps. Those projects included:

* The replacement of 30-year-old non-insulated loading dock doors with new insulated doors which included a Plexiglas window installed in the door. The window was installed to allow the warehouse staff to open the door only once a truck was backed into the loading dock;

* The installation of heavy-duty foam cushions on the loading docks to prevent cold wind from entering in winter or heat from escaping the building in summer when trucks are backed up into the docks;

* The replacement of 30-year-old windows with new double pane windows in order to keep the heat in during the winter and out during the summer;

* The installation of motion detectors on the light fixtures in areas where it’s common to forget to turn off the lights, such as washroom and kitchen areas;

* The installation of three solar light tubes in the office areas. The light tubes extend through the ceiling tiles and up to the roof allowing natural sunlight to be captured. By using a revolutionary, innovative design, the sunlight is redirected down a highly reflective shaft and then diffused throughout a large interior space. The design was conceived so staff could enter the office area during daylight hours without having to turn on any lighting in order to enter their own private work area, and then determine if they need to turn on their own office lights.

* The change of the lighting system so that instead of one “master light” turning on a large series of lights in the office area, a larger number of switches was installed to allow staff to control each individual’s office area. Traditional office lights were also replaced with a new T8 lighting system which provides standard illumination using 35% less hydro.

Lange also noted that while the use of pumps and fans to run the geothermal system would create some additional hydro use, the company decided to maximize the efficiency of the system by using DC fans, which use much less energy, and wet pumps so that heat that was created from the pumps would be used to further heat the water-ethanol mix in the system. Though this was included in the original $500,000 expense, a further $40,000 was spent on the aforementioned lighting system for the offices.

The end result of all Lange’s efforts? No fossil fuels are now necessary to heat
or air condition the premises, translating to an estimated savings of 158,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years. The combined total savings from no natural gas use and limited hydro use will amount to more than $70,000 in the first year, Lange says. A study completed by the company shows it will be receiving a payback from its initial investment after eight years and six months of use, but Lange says the return on investment could happen even sooner if hydro rates continue to climb as they have in recent months.

So why is Lange the only retrofitted office/warehouse complex in Canada to house a geothermal system? Why haven’t more companies gotten on-board with this “greener” technology?

Unfortunately, according to Lange, the problem seems to be limited to dollars and cents. Installation costs for geothermal are much steeper than traditional heating and air conditioning systems, despite the promise of an eventual payback. Additionally, most companies are not blessed with the same unique circumstances as Lange, which had ample time for the installation, space for the bore field, and an inescapable need to update old equipment.

Government incentives for using alternative fuels – or lack thereof – don’t exactly have companies lining up to purchase geothermal technology either.

The federal government currently has no assistance programs, grants, or low-interest loans, and while the Ontario government has waived the PST charge on geothermal equipment, the vast majority of the cost associated with geothermal is the drilling, not the equipment. In Lange’s case, $300,000 of the $500,000 was devoted to drilling costs.

For companies that don’t have an extra half-million bucks kicking around the office, getting a bank loan is always an option, though Lange says that isn’t always easy when asking for finances to support new technology.

“Banks don’t have any history of geothermal being used in a commercial application, therefore you cannot qualify for a loan on geothermal heating, as again most of the cost is based on ‘holes’ and banks cannot seize the ‘holes’ in case (you don’t) pay the loan,” Lange says.

Though ultimately Lange was successful in mustering up the extra cash to finance the geothermal installation, he admits that the lack of proper incentives and assistance programs for geothermal is enough to stop widespread alternative fuel use in its tracks.

While the technology is picking up steam in the residential market (including a new subdivision in Richmond Hill, Ont. which will be using geothermal in 280 homes), geothermal remains relatively untouched by commercial hands. One of the larger problems, Lange says, is the current relationship between the fossil fuels market and the government.

“The government is like a drug dealer when it comes to fossil fuels, because every time natural gas comes out of the ground, it gets paid a royalty,” Lange says. “Every time you fill up your car with gas, there’s a royalty paid to the government. Sometimes I really wonder if the government wants those incentives in place or do they want their royalties? Unfortunately, the geothermal, wind and solar industries are not big enough yet to have a voice in Ottawa, so the incentives they have in place are almost embarrassing.”

But despite the inherent problems surrounding alternative fuel use, Lange has remained diligent in his pursuit to make the right choices for the environment, in both his work and his personal life.

In fact, on top of the recent changes made to the Lange facilities, Lange also traded in his gas-guzzling SUV for a fuel-friendly hybrid. But all these environmentally-friendly changes don’t make Lange some run-of-the-mill, tree-hugging hippie.

He’s far from it. He’s just living proof that the word “green” can hold as much meaning for a businessman as it does for an environmentalist. Heck, they can even be the same person.

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