RFTA hotel conversion fills a gap – literally

Picture a typical hotel or motel room – the kind of budget or midrange room you’ve stayed in countless times on a road trip or near some airport. 

At the far end is a window, of course. And under the window is an annoying, noisy air-conditioner-type thing that has fan and temperature controls (although the air it puts out always seems to be either too hot or too cold).

There are millions of these units all over North America. They must have a name, right? They do indeed. They’re called packaged terminal air conditioners (PTACs for short) and they’ve been the go-to heating and cooling appliance for hotels, senior housing facilities, hospitals and the like for generations.

PTACs are an ancient, horribly inefficient technology, but they endure for a simple reason that you might not expect.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has been reckoning with 42 of these bad boys at the Rodeway Inn in Glenwood Springs, which it purchased last fall to convert into employee housing. It’s been a bit of a journey, but with help from Garfield Clean Energy the bus agency has found a way to replace the old PTACs with much more efficient heating and cooling units that don’t break the bank.

Affordability is a top priority for RFTA. As one of the region’s biggest employers, it faces a constant challenge in recruiting and retaining staff. Converting the Rodeway’s 42 rooms into employee units and offering them at below-market rates is a big part of its strategy.

Spot the PTAC.

Another priority is to make the housing as energy-efficient as possible. That’s partly because RFTA is currently developing a climate action plan that includes the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. (Clean Energy Economy for the Region, the nonprofit that manages Garfield Clean Energy’s programs, is assisting in that effort.)

But there’s another reason for increasing energy efficiency that has a direct link to affordability: housing that uses less energy is more affordable to live in.

So it was that RFTA facilities director Mike Hermes reached out to CLEER building specialist Heidi McCullough this spring for advice on what to replace the PTACs with.

Hermes and McCullough’s starting assumption was that mini-splits – modular systems powered by external heat pumps that provide both heating and cooling – would be the way to go. They’re increasingly popular, work well in our climate and are highly efficient and relatively affordable.

But the PTACs proved not so easy to replace. Remove one, and you’re left with a big rectangular hole in the wall. With a mini-split system, the heat pump is located outside the building and the conditioned air is piped in through openings no wider than a garden hose. Filling, sealing and stuccoing the space formerly occupied by a PTAC turns out to be prohibitively expensive. The most cost-effective solution is to fill the hole with another unit of the same size.

The market is happy to provide such units, of course, and nowadays most of them even use heat-pump technology. Trouble is, most of these so-called packaged terminal heat pumps aren’t designed for our cold climate. At temperatures below about 37 F, they switch to crazy-inefficient electric resistance heating. Engineers often spec these units because they’re cheaper up front, but they lock occupants into much higher electric bills over the long term.

The value of having GCE on your team is that you get third-party advice on efficient and clean tech that goes beyond cookie-cutter engineering. For the Rodeway Inn project, McCullough recommended a relatively new technology from Ice-Air that provides heat-pump heating down to -5 F.

“It’s the same box that you’re used to seeing in a hotel room, but inside is a cold-climate heat pump,” McCullough explains. “It’s an easy retrofit. They basically made a piece of high-performance equipment and put it in a box that fits in the hole.”

McCullough estimates installing Ice-Air units will cost about $100,000 less than mini-splits, while still vastly improving energy efficiency. Meanwhile, energy modeling indicates that they’ll save about $240,000 in energy costs over the next 15 years, which RFTA will be able to pass on to its renters.

“Engineers are great at accomplishing a task,” says McCullough. “But this was a reminder that to drive a high-performance project it really helps to have someone on the team who’s proficient in energy efficiency.”

Moral of story: if you’re considering developing or redeveloping a building in Garfield County, talk to Heidi first. She’ll likely help you find ways to save energy and money, as well as funding. And it’s free!