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Smithtown gets greener with adoption of county geothermal code

Smithtown Councilman Edward Wehrheim, seen in a June

Smithtown Councilman Edward Wehrheim, seen in a June 30, 2011 photo, believes town code needed more specific regulations for geothermal installations. Credit: James Escher

Smithtown is the first town in Suffolk to adopt the county planning commission's model geothermal code, which sets building standards and oversight for those using the green energy source to heat and cool their homes or commercial buildings, officials said.

Smithtown Town Board members voted 4-0 on March 19 to adopt the code -- with Supervisor Patrick Vecchio absent -- developed by the Town of Brookhaven and modified by the county commission.

Councilman Edward Wehrheim said commercial developers have been increasingly interested in using the technology, which PSEG Long Island officials have said involves drilling wells and installing plastic pipes that exchange subsurface temperatures of the Earth to heat and cool buildings.

"We felt the right thing to do would be to put a specific chapter in the code for regulations for geothermal installations," as the town did for solar panels in past years, Wehrheim said. "It makes it easier for the applicant, because it specifies in the code exactly what they need to do."

Smithtown Town Building Director William White said the geothermal systems are four times as efficient as fossil fuel systems, and can reduce heat consumption and costs. No changes in building permit fees are required for the adoption of the code, he said at last week's public hearing.

Home geothermal systems typically cost around $30,000 but can vary depending on the size of the home and manufacturer, officials have said. PSEG Long Island offers rebates of about $3,000 on standard systems, and a federal tax credit can cut cost by another $10,000, said Michael Voltz, PSEG Long Island's director of energy efficiency and renewables.

Michael Kaufman, a member of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, which drafted regulations for the code for more than a year, congratulated Smithtown officials on adopting the model.

"There's an energy crisis on Long Island," he said at the hearing. "We have some of the highest electric rates in the entire nation. With this code, the town is basically among the leaders in Suffolk in going green."

Kaufman said in an interview that the Towns of Brookhaven, Huntington and Islip also are "actively working on the development of their codes."

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