On a warm day in September, Lift-Up employees were sitting around a table in the nonprofit’s Parachute warehouse, eating lunch and basking in the cool air.
It had been a brutal summer. Record heat added to the discomfort of staff who were working double-time in a pandemic to meet record demand at six food pantries in Garfield and Mesa counties. The swamp coolers couldn’t keep up, the building got hot and steamy, and then – the icing on the cake – the coolers started sucking in smoke from the wildfires.
But now the crew was feeling sweet relief. Installers with Summit Mechanical had replaced the swamp coolers with three brand-new heat pumps, and just that morning they’d switched them on. Cool air was whispering out of the wall-mounted units.
“I think it’s going to make a world of difference,” office manager Renee Horton said of the new system – and she wasn’t only talking about temperature. The upgrade will also cut down on noise, save on repairs and maintenance, and pave the way for further building improvements.
Best of all, Lift-Up was able to get the project done nearly for free, thanks to some resourceful energy coaching from Garfield Clean Energy and a grant from Energy Outreach Colorado.
The project didn’t come about in the usual way, with an initial walk-through by a GCE consultant. Horton already knew the old swamp coolers had to go – they’d been leaking for years, necessitating costly repairs – and had accepted Summit’s bid to replace them.
Fortunately, Summit Mechanical owner Ken Reeder thought to reach out to GCE to see if there might be any financial aid for such a project. GCE energy coach Maisa Metcalf was the right person to ask. She recognized the potential to get funding from Energy Outreach Colorado’s Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Program and worked with them to get almost 100% funding for the $21,000 project.
“I actually cried the day we found out,” Horton said, tearing up again as she recalled it. “I didn’t realize (the funding) was going to be that much help, so I was just beside myself when we got the answer. Very excited, very touched.”
Working with Lift-Up was a heartwarming experience for Metcalf, too. “They’re helping so many families in need. I’m so glad they can also receive some assistance.”
Metcalf noted that any Colorado nonprofit that serves income-qualified households can get up to 100% NEEP funding for energy efficiency projects.
“Nonprofits should totally be talking to us,” she said. “Businesses, too. There are so many forms of assistance available that it can be kind of overwhelming, but we try to make GCE a sort of one-stop shop where you can come and get advice and get connected to all the programs you qualify for.”
Garfield Clean Energy often touts the financial benefits of energy efficiency, but sometimes the selling point is comfort. Lift-Up’s Parachute facility is a good example.
Until this spring, the 1970s-era steel-paneled building sufficed as the location of one of Lift-Up’s thrift stores. But when the pandemic hit and demand for services more than doubled, the space was repurposed as a distribution warehouse – and with more people doing more heavy lifting inside, “it wasn’t real staff-friendly,” Horton recalled. Comfort became the driving consideration.
The new system certainly delivers on that score. Its air-source heat pumps use the same basic physics as a refrigerator or air conditioner to chill the air, and the process produces colder, dryer air than evaporative (swamp) coolers do.
That, in turn, means a lot less noise – a major secondary benefit. Lift-Up’s two roof-mounted swamp coolers had to move massive amounts of air to achieve their cooling effect, which produced a mechanical racket that made conversation difficult. The new Mitsubishi units push only about a tenth as much air through, and the mechanical equipment is located outside the building.
Plus, the “ductless mini split” system delivers air to independent heads in five different zones, allowing for more precise climate control across the building’s 4,500 square feet. Nathan Hodge of Summit Mechanical explained that the flexibility, efficiency and reliability of mini-splits have made them increasingly popular worldwide.
And while Lift-Up’s immediate need was for better cooling, its new system is more than just an air conditioner. In winter it can be run in reverse to provide warm air, supplementing the rather inefficient existing boiler.
In terms of energy costs, Hodge guessed that the new system probably won’t beat the old swamp coolers, but its superior performance and all-season use make it a no-brainer replacement. And when maintenance costs are factored in, Horton said she’s looking forward to net savings.
All in all, she said, Lift-Up’s first foray into energy upgrades has been a great experience, and has whetted their appetite for more. GCE is now working with the organization to retrofit the lighting in its Rifle and Parachute locations.