FAIRBANKS — The Cold Climate Housing Research Center is hoping an unprecedented combination of sun and water will provide the warmth for its new 7,000-square-foot addition.
CCHRC, which tests cold-weather building techniques from its location below the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is launching an ambitious project to tap a massive water tank for its heating needs. A school-bus-sized tank was insulated with a thick layer of spray foam on Wednesday and lowered into a deep trench by a crane. The 25,000-gallon drum will be filled with water in the weeks ahead, which will be gradually heated by an array of south-facing solar panels.
The project is being funded by a $70,000 grant from BP, along with a donated tank from K&K Recycling, said CCHRC communications coordinator Molly Rettig.
“The idea is when the sun’s not available in December, January, February, we’ll be able to sip fuel from that tank,” said CCHRC research engineer Bruno Grunau.
That’s the goal. But Grunau, while stopping short of calling the project experimental, said it definitely ventures into new territory for builders in the far north.
The water will be heated by 16 2-by-6-foot thermal solar panels, bringing the temperature as high as 180 degrees during its summer peak. Glycol-filled tubes will transfer that heat into the building throughout the year, providing a stable source for its radiant floor heating system.
CCHRC has collected electricity from a 10-unit array of solar panels since 2008, and Grunau said the Fairbanks area is a productive spot for sunlight.
“The solar resource is great,” he said. “The Interior is the best in Alaska.”
The heating ability of the system probably will be minimal this winter, since the waning sunlight won’t provide much opportunity to warm the water inside the buried tank. But with the system in place for the entire summer in 2014, it should provide a good benchmark next winter for its performance.
Thermal storage systems have been used successfully in the Interior, but they typically heat homes by tapping water tanks of 5,000 gallons or less. Using a tank five times that size will test its limits, Grunau said. Even if the system doesn’t work as expected, he said, it will still provide valuable information about the performance of thermal storage tanks in Alaska.
Like all CCHRC projects, the data collected from the project will help determine whether the technology is viable on a larger scale in the Interior. The system could be functional by Christmas, and the research center plans to launch a website soon afterward so the public can see how much energy the project is producing.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Rettig said of the system. “I guess we’re thinking of this as a demonstration to see how much it can do.”
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