The mechanical room for the geothermal heating and cooling system...

The mechanical room for the geothermal heating and cooling system at William L. Buck School in Valley Stream, seen here on Sept. 8, 2015, is located a couple of hundred feet away from the school in a cinderblock building. Credit: Uli Seit

A $3 million pilot program using a twist on traditional geothermal systems to heat and cool buildings is being tested at a Valley Stream elementary school and has saved the district thousands of dollars in electric bills, increased security and provided stable climate control.

Traditional geothermal systems require drilling hundreds of boreholes into the ground to collect water, but the unit at William L. Buck Elementary School ties right into the public water main and connects to a heat exchanger that warms and cools the water, and sends it throughout the building, similar to the way radiators work.

The water is then sent to a diffusion well going back to the groundwater, said Bill Varley, senior vice president of American Water's Northeast Division, which funded the trial.

"It's so basic but it's so different," Varley said. "The implications are huge."

It's the first time in the nation such a unit has been installed at a school and represents a cheaper alternative to traditional geothermal systems, said John "Jack" DiEnna, executive director of the Geothermal National & International Initiative in Pennsylvania, an alliance of geothermal professionals.

It can typically cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to drill the initial boreholes, so connection to public water reduces upfront costs. The district also will save an estimated $40,000 in electrical costs each year, Varley said.

The project came about after state Public Service Commissioner Patricia L. Acampora introduced Varley and DiEnna, hoping to spur geothermal advancements in New York.

"We know geothermal is something that not only can help New York, but it can help in other places," she said. "It isn't just for water companies. The application is good for electric and gas."

Varley and DiEnna's first meeting was in September 2013 and the trial went online in December. Construction inside the school took place at night and a small pump house built off the playground was shielded from the view of students. The change has been noticeable. In the past during hot days, windows would be open to stifle heat. Not so any more.

"It's like an exponential difference," fifth-grade teacher David LeWinter said. "During this heat wave it certainly helps keep kids on track. I think it has a positive effect on everybody in the building."

With windows closed, access to the school also is limited, said Valley Stream School District 24 Superintendent Edward M. Fale. "This has had a dramatic increase on safety and security," he said.

Some parents and teachers have also requested to transfer into the school.

"We're excited to have this system in one of our schools," Fale said. "We wish we had it in all three schools."

For the first time this year, afternoon summer programming was allowed in the gym and the school rented out space to JCC of the Greater Five Towns.

New, quiet air conditioning and heating units have replaced older types throughout the school in wall units or the ceiling.

Nassau County Department of Health reviewed plans and requested water be tested to measure impacts to groundwater, said agency spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain.

Temperature, acidity and chlorine levels are continuously recorded. "We're getting as much data as possible to get everyone comfortable with it," Varley said. "There's been no change in water quality."

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