Student advises on solar pool heating

by Allison Kronberg

Heating an outdoor pool can be quite costly.
But a student at the University of Minnesota-Morris is working to see if alternative energy could help ease the financial stress.
Environmental science sophomore Kelly Fischer is working this semester to help pool owners determine if it would be feasible to heat a portion of their pools’ water with solar energy, which could save money and help the environment.
“It is a rather big thing to tackle,” she said, “and we’re still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
Several communities brought their concerns about public pool heating costs to light at both the 2013 and 2015 Clean Energy Resource Teams southwest regional conferences, said Annette Fiedler, the Southwest Clean Energy Resource Teams coordinator. One town reported spending more than $10,000 last summer.
Fiedler researched possible solutions to the problem online and found that solar heating can sometimes be a cost-effective alternative for outdoor pools.
But the cities Fiedler worked with wanted to be certain if installing a solar thermal system would save them money in the long run before they invested, she said.
“It’s not just a straightforward answer for the communities,” Fiedler said.
Heating water with solar energy is not a new technology, said Eric Buchanan, a West Central Research and Outreach Center renewable energy scientist on the Morris campus. The original technology was patented in 1909.
To get help, Fiedler contacted University Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, which connects students with organizations working on sustainable projects.
Buchanan recommended that Fischer assess the feasibility of the community pools using solar heating through a free online clean energy model tool called RETScreen International Clean Energy Project Analysis Software.
“You could model anything from a new geothermal solar plant to a house swimming pool with it,” Buchanan said.
The Microsoft Office Excel-based software allows users to plug in their current financial and energy use information, along with the amount of solar energy they’re considering using, to determine how much money and energy they would save.
Fischer worked for the RDSP last year gathering data about indoor beehives and rural grocers. RSDP then recommended Fischer for the partnership in October because of her experience with data entry.
Fischer is currently writing a manual to help pool owners use RETScreen software.
“I don’t want them to think they can get [solar heating] if they can’t,” she said. “I want the information to be the most correct that there is out there.”
Once pool owners have sent over their data, either Fischer or a different student will take over to try different brands and usage of solar energy to see what could help the pools most.
If a community does decide to install solar heating, another student may also do a case study on how it works for them.
Fiedler hopes information from the continuing studies could also help privately owned pools determine how practical it would be to install a solar thermal system, she said.
Fischer said especially as a student on the Morris campus, which heats its own swimming pool with solar panels, she feels it’s important to increase awareness of alternative energies.
“I think, as part of the student body, one of our biggest jobs is to advocate for that,” she said. “A lot of towns are using green energy, so I’m excited about that.”