In May, the University of Arizona announced plans to help offset energy costs and heat the campus's two large swimming pools by adding solar electricity panels and solar hot water heaters to the roofs of several campus buildings, including its student recreation center. The University of Oregon also installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on its rec center roof and recently purchased gym equipment retrofitted to produce user-generated energy. The Green Microgym in Portland, OR, hosts a solar PV array, Energy Star-rated ceiling fans, as well as custom spin bikes that let members produce electricity.

As these three examples show, green building and energy efficiency projects are gaining broader mainstream attention. Forty-two percent of architects said their clients requested green building elements on their projects, according to the annual 2008 Autodesk/American Institute of Architects Green Index survey. Nearly 60 percent of those architects cited reduced operating costs as the reason behind the green building requests, while 39 percent of those surveyed are incorporating renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, in more than half of their new building designs.

Fitness facilities nationwide are engaging in green energy efforts to save money. Although the upfront costs for some energy efficiency projects may appear prohibitive, increased demand, technological advancements and leasing options are making energy efficiency projects more affordable.

In addition, as consumers become more environmentally aware, they will expect their fitness clubs to be a model of health — both for members and the environment, says Will Phillips, CEO of REX Roundtables for Club Owners.

“Through the rest of the recession is a great time for clubs to start getting on the energy bandwagon because it makes them good citizens,” he says. “Within five years, it could hurt you if you're not green because people will really notice. It will be like going to a club back in the 1950s where people could smoke. People are going to think not being green will have a similar flavor because people want to be healthy.”

Club of the Future

One fitness club that's ahead of the curve is The Green Microgym. The facility hosts a solar PV array, plus spin bikes that owner Adam Boesel retrofitted to produce energy.

In addition, the club has created a culture of energy efficiency in which members turn off TVs when they're not in use and ride their bikes to the gym. Boesel positioned his club as a green, energy-efficient facility to set it apart from other gyms.

“When I went from a personal trainer to wanting to own my own small gym, I was writing a business plan and trying to figure out how to differentiate myself from the other small gyms,” he says. “Then I came across a gym in Hong Kong that was experimenting with generating electricity that mentioned it wasn't that much of a challenge to do it. I'm the kind of person who says if I'm going to say my business is green, then I want to do it all the way.”

While other gyms may not be as green as The Green Microgym, progress is on the horizon, he says.

“I really do feel like there is potential for us to make really good headway in the next few years. We need to help educate people on energy savings instead of energy production,” Boesel says. “I get a lot of club owners contacting me, but probably 1 percent of them want to change their gym. More people want to start a new gym. Universities that call usually want to change, but that's a different story — they have different resources.”

Saving on Solar

Dennis Munroe, director of physical education and recreation at the University of Oregon, says the student-run Ecological Design Center came up with the idea for the solar panels on the rec center roof, then offered to do the fundraising. The center even designed a Web site (edc.uoregon.edu/solar) to show students how much power the array is producing in real time.

Oregon's solar panels consist of a 12-kilowatt array of 84 PV panels that have produced 56,240 kilowatt-hours of energy since their installation in January 2005. They've offset 24,126 pounds of carbon dioxide emission and saved the school $14,060 in energy costs.

“Last year we got a rebate check from the local utility for $3,000,” Munroe says. “Considering our energy budget is $150,000 to $180,000, it's really more about the educational value of having a living, learning lab for students on campus. Efficiencies of the system become more valuable all the time, and the more we do them, the more we learn and the sooner we get to where it's more economically viable.”

Although the return on investment for a solar electricity system is about eight to 10 years, according to Robert Politzer, president and CEO of GreenStreet Inc., New York, leasing options for solar arrays are becoming more widely available.

The University of Arizona worked in conjunction with an energy services provider to minimize the cost of its initial solar investment.

“The company actually maintains, owns and operates the solar panels, and the University of Arizona will purchase the energy it produces,” says Juliette Moore, director of campus recreation at the university.

By renting the solar equipment, Arizona avoided the upfront costs to purchase and install the equipment.

The model for onsite power generation is gaining popularity in the corporate world, as is the notion of green design, Politzer says.

“In many ways, we're in the relatively early stages of a green industrial revolution, though it's already quite a bit better today than it was 10 years ago. Another two to three years from now, it will be much more mainstream,” he says.

Politzer notes that after World War II, large energy-producing plants that were located miles from usage sites were the norm, but that paradigm is losing ground.

“A distributed power model where buildings produce electricity onsite — like CHP [combined heat and power] systems, solar, waste to energy, wind — this model is growing in intensity as we move forward,” Politzer says.

Energy Audits

Although it can be more cost effective to build energy-efficient systems into a new facility, green renovations also can reduce a club's energy usage. The first place to start is with an energy audit, Politzer says. An energy audit can help a fitness facility owner develop an integrated energy use strategy and point to places where efficiency can be improved.

Phillips notes that local utilities generally will do an audit for free, though they probably will be less detailed than if a club hires an energy consultant. To find an auditor, he suggests doing an Internet search for “industrial energy audits.”

Chelsea Piers in New York City scheduled a comprehensive energy audit of its entire complex before deciding late last year to purchase all of its energy as renewable wind energy, says Erica Schietinger, vice president of corporate communications with Chelsea Piers Management. The club also invested in energy-efficient lighting by replacing 690 light fixtures with high-pressure sodium fixtures at a cost of $200,000.

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“Our goal is to achieve a 6 percent decrease in energy use and a 10 percent reduction in solid waste by December 2010,” Schietinger says. “It's been a process because trying to do all the things you want to do in a week or two, you're just not going to do it that well.”

An energy audit can highlight inefficiencies in areas such as insulation, air sealing and lighting, all of which are significant contributors to a club's electric bill, Politzer says.

Smart Lighting

Gary Graham, co-founder of Graham/Meus Inc. architects in Boston, says lighting in a club can account for almost a quarter of its electricity use, so cost savings in this area can be dramatic. Some energy companies may provide rebates to businesses who re-lamp their clubs, he notes.

Politzer compares incandescent light bulbs to gas-guzzling Lincoln Town Cars. He says the majority of energy leaves incandescent bulbs as heat, not energy, and only 15 percent of that energy is used for light. He recommends upgrading incandescent bulbs with light-emitting diodes or compact fluorescent bulbs. Older clubs with fluorescent tube lights can save energy by switching from thicker T-12 tubes to T-8 tubes.

The lighting choices for health clubs are important, says Philip Racicot, founding partner of Summit Health & Fitness in Bedford, MA, whose club opened from a build-out in 2006.

“If you're building or remodeling a gym, you really need to consider everything from lighting choices to the type of sheetrock you use,” Racicot says. “With lighting, we used 99.99 percent fluorescent and used the most energy-efficient fixtures we could find at the time.”

Simply turning off lights in rooms not being used also cuts energy costs. To manage electricity use at its 19-acre facility, management at The Claremont Club in Claremont, CA, installed an energy management system (EMS) to regulate the facility's usage from a desktop computer.

“We have a whole online monitoring system for the air conditioning system and boilers,” says Mike Boos, facilities director for The Claremont Club. “In places like our yoga room that's not used all the time, we can schedule the air conditioner to come on before a class and turn off when there's no occupancy. It's an elegantly designed system that helps us manage our energy usage.”

The Claremont Club hired an energy consultant, Franz Kurth of Energy Systems, to orchestrate its EMS system. Kurth says the club's EMS system controls everything from light bulbs to pool pumps.

“It all starts with energy management,” Kurth says. “It's computerized, so you can control every function in a club with EMS. It's very efficient.”

Cogeneration Systems

To address The Claremont Club's energy usage and heat its two large swimming pools, Kurth recommended that the club install a CHP, or cogeneration, system that uses natural gas to produce energy and heat water.

CHP and district energy systems can achieve efficiencies of 80 percent, compared to 45 percent efficiency for conventional heat and power production, per a recent release from the U.S. Department of Energy.

CHP technology has been scaled down for smaller scale use in recent years, and it offers a significant return on investment, Phillips says.

“The possibilities for savings are spectacular for single clubs, particularly if they have a pool,” Phillips says. “Savings range in the thousands of dollars a month in real savings, and it's paid off faster than expected.”

Since The Claremont Club has a one million-gallon Olympic-sized pool in addition to an 80,000-gallon family pool, it was a prime candidate for a CHP system, Kurth says.

“Claremont uses a cogeneration system which takes natural gas energy to drive a high-powered generator, but all of the heat generated in the process is captured in hot water — 50 percent is heat and 50 percent is power,” Kurth says. “You burn natural gas to produce power and heat at the same time.”

The heat is kept as stored hot water, which heats the pools. Since natural gas is cheaper to buy than electricity, the CHP system saves on utility bills, plus natural gas has virtually no emissions, he notes.

“The local utility charges 25 cents per kilowatt-hour of power. We produce it at 11 cents. That makes a huge difference in the annual power cost,” Kurth says.

Although the upfront costs for a CHP system are high, Kurth says that The Claremont Club had a fairly short return on investment.

“The club management was farsighted in that they were able to convince the board to spend $50,000 to $100,000 for long-term benefits that have had a payback of three years,” he says.

Local utility companies provided rebates for the project. Since the electric company benefited from the club's reduced energy load to the grid, it provided the largest contribution, he says.

“Each project is different, but generally we find we get one-third to two-thirds of the cost of the system as a contribution,” Kurth says. “If you look at the benefits to produce energy as opposed to burning coal, it reduces your energy load, so they also may give you a preferential rate. It's a two-way street. Gas companies love us. You increase your natural gas bills and decrease electric bills.”

Even though rebate incentives vary by state, an energy consultant can help file the right paperwork, Kurth says. Information also is available online (see sidebar at right).

Some club owners also are working with companies that install and maintain the CHP system, then sell the power to the club at lower costs than local utility companies.

Laury Hammel, founder and owner of The Longfellow Clubs in Natick, MA, said by working with a CHP rental company, his clubs had no upfront costs to install the system, which has reduced its utility bills.

“We've increased our purchasing of natural gas, which is what creates the electricity more inexpensively, reduces our carbon footprint and creates the byproduct of heat that is used to heat our pools and showers,” Hammel says. “We haven't used our pool heater for a year now. We've reduced our purchasing of electricity. We are thrilled with this arrangement and highly recommend it to other health clubs.”

With increased rebates and incentives, as well as advances in technology and financing options, energy-efficient projects for clubs are becoming more affordable. And as members expect health clubs to become stewards for a healthier environment, many people in the industry consider energy-efficient projects a win-win investment.

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Green Gym Equipment Gaining Popularity

By Stephanie Bloyd, senior associate editor

OVERLAND PARK, KS—Students at the University of Oregon recently started seeing the light about renewable energy—literally. At the May debut of the school’s elliptical machines retrofitted to tap user-generated energy, officials hooked up one of the machines to light bulbs to physically show students the energy they produced. One of the three bulbs was an energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) to further drive home the point.

“When you turned on the first incandescent bulb, you could really feel the resistance in your feet because you were connecting to the electric grid,” says Dennis Munroe, director of physical education and recreation at the University of Oregon (UO). “With the second light, you felt even more resistance. But since the third light was a CFL, you barely detected a difference because it used less energy.”

UO estimates that if the 20 ellipticals retrofitted with ReCardio devices are used by its students for six to eight hours a day, they will produce about 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which is about enough to supply a small, energy-efficient house for a year.

Together with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels installed on the school’s rec center roof in 2005, the university’s renewable energy projects provide some savings on its energy bills, though to Munroe, that’s icing on the cake.

“It’s probably more about education than dollar savings, but that’s what we’re here for,” he says. “The PV makes electricity for the building every day, and ReCardio collects energy from machines. Both together have a net effect of reducing the speed of our energy meter.”

Exercise equipment retrofitted to create energy is making waves in the fitness industry and beyond. Although the amount of energy generated probably isn’t enough to cover a club’s total power needs, it can reduce utility bills, depending on local utility codes. Plus, the educational and public relations (PR) aspects that the machines provide can translate into member retention since they add incentives for people to exercise.

Joe Cirulli, owner of Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers (GHFC), Gainesville, FL, says his club’s ReCardio fitted machines have generated a positive image for the facility.

“It makes the members feel good to know that we’re doing renewable energy projects, because we get such good PR for it, and as the country and our members continue to be concerned about environmental issues, anything you can do for good PR in your community has got to be helpful,” he says.
Cirulli has initiated a number of green projects in his clubs, including recycling, low-flow shower heads and motion sensors for lights. GHFC also was a beta test site for ReCardio fitted ellipticals.

“The ReCardio system has given members a chance to do something productive, and in some cases, makes exercise more rewarding,” Cirulli says. “Often times, it’s a cumulative measurement to help people stay motivated and on a routine.”

Cirulli met ReCardio founder Hudson Harr at a University of Florida meeting of the school’s entrepreneurs club. Harr says the ReCardio system currently is in about a dozen fitness facilities nationwide, but he expects 30 clubs and universities to come online with the system in the next few months.

The ReCardio parent company, ReRev.com of St. Petersburg, FL, also is in talks with Precor for a possible future partnership, he says. Precor’s ellipticals use small generators rather than alternators, making them easier to tie into the electric grid, he notes.

Many of the company’s early adapters have been universities, Harr says, because of the product’s strong educational aspect, in addition to schools’ diverse funding options.

UO received funds from several sources to buy and install the 20 ReCardio devices on its ellipticals. Some $7,000 came from an EWEB Partners in Education Grant, $12,000 from the UO Office of Sustainability and $2,880 from the UO rec center advisory board.

Green exercise studios also are attracting Hollywood investors, such as Ryan O’Neal, who signed on as a financial backer for Kinetic Cycling in Brentwood, CA, says owner John Scarangello.

Kinetic Cycling is a newly opened spin and yoga studio that hosts five spin bikes retrofitted with user-generated energy devices produced by The Green Revolution, Ridgefield, CT. Kinetic Cycling holds about 40 spin classes a week, and an individual can produce about 100 watts an hour on the retrofitted spin bikes. Scarangello says he hopes the energy produced in the classes will pay for the 1,450-foot studio’s monthly electric bill.

“We don’t think we’re going to power the whole city of Los Angeles, but the concept of our gym is to raise community awareness and do it with health,” Scarangello says.

Scarangello designed the studio to be energy-efficient by choosing low-heat LED lights as workout room lighting, which use a total of 300 watts of energy when they’re all lit. In addition, Kinetic Cycling hosts a filtered water vending machine for use with reusable water bottles.

The Green Revolution’s spin bike technology is currently in four facilities nationwide, with installations planned for 20 more by the end of the year, says Michael Curnyn, chief marketing officer for the company. To best leverage the investment for the retrofits and inverter, he recommends that clubs connect a minimum of 15 bikes.

To be able to use a single green spin bike in his small Portland, OR, facility, Adam Boesel, owner of The Green Microgym, developed his own custom retrofit device. His equipment also is tied to the electric grid, which he says should help save costs and track the energy generated.

“The interesting thing about the fitness industry is that people say [that] 20 years from now, the machines will generate all the energy, but I think it will be based on supply and demand and what’s available,” Boesel says.

Though green exercise equipment is in its infancy, the potential for greater energy savings and member retention strategies makes it an area to watch in coming years.