Ball State's geothermal project enters Phase 2

Ball State's geothermal project — a massive cost-saving endeavor and the only one of its kind — is easing into Phase 2 with little fanfare as funding continues to wane, university officials said.

Although they can begin Phase 2 of the project, Director of Facilities Planning and Management Jim Lowe said there is no set date on when it will be able to be completed.

"Certainly what we're seeking first and foremost are possible grants and other outside foundation type support," he said. "We haven't exhausted those opportunities, and we'll continue to look until we find something."

The cost of the project is estimated at $65 to $70 million. After it's completed, the system will save the university $2 million in fuel costs annually. It will replace two coal-fire boilers with underground piping that Lowe said could last up to 50 years without being replaced.


From the beginning of the project, Lowe said he knew the university only had enough funds to guarantee completing Phase 1 and that the university would have to continue to raise the remaining funds.

For now, Phase 2 will begin in the former women's soccer field across from IU Ball Memorial Hospital. Workers will drill 680 boreholes, only a third of what is necessary in that area.

Eventually, they will install four miles of distribution pipes with 1,000 more miles of piping connecting them underneath the south end of campus.

As construction on Phase 2 begins, testing of the system installed during Phase 1 is in its final stages.

"We said we'd be ready for Fall Semester of 2011, and we are," Lowe said.

Six miles of distribution pipes lie underneath the north end of campus, connecting the 20 buildings that will now begin to use the geothermal system for heating and cooling.

"[The testing is going] as well as can be expected," Lowe said. "Tests and turning your whole entire new system on is a process where you discover an opportunity. You make tweaks to the system and you just continue until soon you've smoothed it out and have things running as they should be."

Phase 2 will include the old south quad area around the Fine Arts Building, Cooper Science Building, Ball Gymnasium, and as far south as Burris Laboratory School and L.A. Pittenger Student Center. This portion will include four miles of piping.


The process looks into the small details, such as a valve that may need replacing, as well as the larger aspects, such as making sure the new 2,500-ton chillers are in working order. The tests guarantee that the water is being received properly and that the system performance meets the necessary heating and cooling needs. Lowe said so far it has.

"There's a lot that goes in to starting up a system," he said. "You don't just flip a switch and instantaneously you have heating and cooling."

People in the buildings will not know they are being heated or cooled by geothermal, Lowe said.

"It's the same system," he said. "The system or the building is just receiving its chilled water and hot water from a different production point, which is the geothermal building."


Reva and Lane Brown have been in the business of geothermal heating and cooling for more than 25 years, and they're no strangers to the benefits of geothermal, including the low maintenance and cost, as well as being clean and environmentally friendly.

The couple own Geothermal Design Associates Inc., with offices in Fort Wayne and Bryan, Ohio. Reva said Ball State's geothermal project isn't really anything new. Geothermal systems have been around for more than 30 years, she said.

"Man and fire go back a long ways," she said, laughing. "This is not in any way risky. It's just expensive."

Reva said students might feel like guinea pigs, but the project isn't much different than others she's seen or helped facilitate.

"There were just a lot of heads that had to be put together to swing the finances of doing the project just because of the size of the system," she said.

With a geothermal system, water runs through pipes to either cool or heat a building, and lateral piping is buried at least four feet in the ground, which eliminates the possibility of them freezing during the winter.

"All geothermal units use an extended range water source heat pump as a piece of equipment inside, which moves the liquid from the loop through it and processes heat out of it or puts heat into it depending on whether you're in heating or cooling," Reva said. "So that's all the same."

Ball State has a decentralized system, Brown said, meaning it isn't all connected to the same circuit. Massive valve pits buried underground are connected to clusters of buildings around campus. This allows Lowe and his team to isolate any problems that might come up.

If a problem comes up, Lowe said he knows what to do.

"When there is a failure, they'll have to do what they've been doing for the past 60 years," he said. "Dig it up and fix it." 


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