Warm spring days mean the return of swim season in San Diego as people flock to pools at apartment buildings, homeowner associations, schools, swim clubs, hotels and elsewhere. However, commercial pool owners and operators know that even when daytime temperatures go up, nighttime temperatures remain low, forcing them to continue costly pool heating well into the summer.
Both indoor and outdoor commercial pools typically require a swimming temperature between 80–86 degrees. To maintain that comfort level, a large pool requires year-round heating and consumes a considerable amount of natural gas – roughly as much as 150 homes, resulting in annual utility bills running up to tens of thousands of dollars
Originally published April 14, 2016, in the San Diego Business Journal special section “Sustainable San Diego.”
To cut energy costs and gain green ratings, a growing number of commercial pool owners are turning to solar pool heating to capitalize on reduced natural gas use and substantial utility incentives, according to solar expert Sarah Smith of the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE).
Solar heating systems integrate with a pool’s water filtering system and natural gas heater to become the main source of heating. Over the past 25 years, the solar pool heating industry has blossomed for backyard pools, but languished in the commercial sector due to high upfront costs that start at about $30,000 and go up to $250,000 or more.
The situation changed in 2014, when the California Solar Initiative – Thermal (CSI-Thermal) program began issuing rebates for commercial swimming pool heating as part of the California Public Utility Commission’s measures to help reduce fossil fuel use and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Solar Heating Advantages
The CSI-Thermal program currently funds up to 50 percent of system installation costs for pools at commercial, multifamily, government, nonprofit or institutional locations. The rebate is based on the estimated annual therms of natural gas displaced by the solar system. Single-family home pools are not eligible.
Smith manages the CSI-Thermal program for CSE in the San Diego region. She reports 80 rebates have been issued to date for pools in San Diego, with an average award of $12,500. Statewide, the program has incentivized more than 500 pools for rebates totaling $7,017,000.
The program has sparked interest among property management companies, multifamily developers and others in real estate, according to solar energy equipment supplier Roy Heine, CEO of Suntrek Industries. He said the program has changed the playing field for the solar industry, and the better value proposition increased Suntrek’s solar pool heating sales fourfold during the program’s first year.
“CSI-Thermal lit a flame of interest among commercial pool owners that was dormant prior to the rebates,” Heine said. “The fact is, you cannot find a better solar investment than pool heating when it comes to return on investment.”
According to PK Data, a company that compiles swimming pool and spa industry statistics, there are roughly 40,000 commercial swimming pools in the state of California—most of which are currently heated using natural gas. A solar pool heating system basically eliminates natural gas pool heating bills eight months a year, and during winter, offsets 50 percent or more of costs.
Carlsbad Swim Center
Swim center entrepreneur Jon Alpert, founder and owner of Waterworks Aquatics, has installed solar pool heating at four of his eight corporate locations, including an indoor, two-pool center off Palomar Road in Carlsbad.
Solar heating was included during the facility’s construction in 2011 to serve a teaching pool set up for children at 93 degrees, and another system was installed three years later for a lap pool maintained at 89 degrees. The second system qualified for the CSI-Thermal program, receiving a $13,118 rebate on a $26,900 installation. Alpert said the project also qualified for a special renewable energy loan program offered by the Small Business Administration.
“With the low cost of natural gas, it’s hard to want to put in solar pool heating at first, but the immediate and consistent utility bill savings combined with the rebates and other factors, it makes for a good return on investment,” Alpert said.
Apartment Complex Pools
Developer Russell Khouri of Investment Concepts, a real estate company that owns apartments and various properties in Southern California, includes solar pool heating as a sustainable building feature that offers both energy conservation and a long-term environmental asset.
Solar pool heating, along with solar water heating for domestic uses and solar photovoltaics for on-site electrical generation, counts toward renewable energy credits in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and qualify for increasingly popular, low-interest property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing programs.
Investment Concepts has installed systems at 17 of its residential properties, including recent additions of three separate solar systems for three pools at the 172-unit Villa Monair Apartments in Bay Park in San Diego. The pools qualified under earlier terms offered by the CSI-Thermal program, resulting in a total rebate of $27,500 toward installation costs of $37,280.
“I would advise any multitenant property owner with a pool to think seriously about solar and to take advantage of the free energy offered by the sun and the opportunity to reduce gas consumption whenever possible,” Khouri said.
Pools at Schools
Mohr Power Solar approached the El Cajon Valley School District about installing solar pool heating for its Olympic-sized, 50-meter competition and recreational pool at Montgomery Middle School. After considering the potential utility savings and learning of the rebates, the district went ahead with the project, meriting a $20,300 rebate on a $40,610 system.
“With rebates as high as 50 percent of the cost of a system, it makes solar pool heating both financially beneficial and an ecologically smart choice,” said Bill Hannon, a system design engineer at Mohr Power Solar.
Info on Rebates
Commercial, municipal and multifamily swimming pool operators can get more information about installing solar pool heating and the available CSI-Thermal rebates by contacting CSE at 858-244-1177 or visitingenergycenter.org/hotwater.
Locations Ideal for Solar Pool Heating
- Hotels and resorts
- Apartment complexes
- Spas and fitness centers
- Homeowner associations
- Water parks and swim centers
- Schools and universities
- Camps and public parks