A malfunctioning geothermal heating and cooling system at the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center in Georgetown, Delaware has officials scrambling for a temporary solution before the summer heat begins in earnest.
The $13 million, 18,000-square-foot facility opened in 2008 and was heralded as energy-efficient green building that could respond to large emergency events even during dangerous weather. The structure was designed to withstand wind loads of up to 120 miles per hour. But the facility is now in danger of its air conditioning shutting down and the oppressive Delaware summer damaging its millions of dollars of state-of-the-art electronics equipment.
To function properly, that equipment needs constant air conditioning which is provided by the geothermal system. The closed-loop system uses groundwater as its starting point, the temperature of which should range from 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But in recent weeks the water in the system’s 24, 600-foot-deep wells has ranged from 80 to 85 degrees. On more than one occasion it has even even topped 95. If the temperature reaches 100 to 105, the building’s air conditioning system will shut down. $2 million in county equipment and $2 million in state equipment could be in jeopardy.
Earlier this month, Sussex County approved a temporary generator to operate the building’s cooling systems while the problem is investigated (at a cost of $14,000 through Labor Day). Digging more wells or installing a permanent cooling tower would cost approximately $200,000. The county is also seeking advice from geothermal experts. More ominously, the county “will try to determine whether an engineering or design flaw contributed to the problem and, if any are found, will try to recover any costs.” Already the county engineer has publicly speculated whether the project’s designers factored in that the building would always need to be cooled “because of the amount of heat generated by equipment in the EOC. Possible litigation could center on that.”
Hopefully the issue can be resolved without any significant damage to the EOC or litigation. But as more green buildings that opened during the mid- to late-00s continue to operate, the odds that similar problems with other advanced building technologies could manifest themselves will increase.