Heating bills burning up budgets

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— The cost of natural gas could be going up again in February, and escalating energy prices are overheating budgets for Steamboat Springs businesses and institutions. That's the case even for one prominent institution that relies heavily on geothermal heat.

Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association is blessed with an abundance of hot water gushing out of the ground at the famous Heart Spring. However, that isn't enough to heat Health and Rec's popular hot pool and the larger lap pool next door.

Larry Wheeler, manager of Steamboat Springs' Holiday Inn, said the trick for his property is balancing the comfort of guests with a need to hold the line on energy costs. He estimates his energy bills this winter have been at least 20 percent higher than last year. "We use lots of energy," Wheeler said. "It wouldn't be feasible to adjust our rate structure in the middle of the season, so we're trying to make sure our guests are as comfortable as ever" while taking steps to conserve energy. Wheeler said the Holiday Inn got rid of its old 15-passenger, gas hog shuttle van and switched to a six-passenger minivan that gets by on regular unleaded in its six-cylinder engine. The motel is also phasing in compact fluorescent light bulbs in its guest rooms as the incandescent bulbs give up. The biggest change this year has been the replacement of an old gas-fired boiler with a newer, more efficient boiler. The motel used to use a heating system in the concrete surrounding its pool that was powered by electricity. When the concrete needed replacing, the heating system was replaced by a more efficient gas-fired system that pumps glycol through a series of tubes running through the concrete. The motel is also reaping the rewards of a cold-roof and additional insulation, installed in late 1998. The cold-roof is designed to hold snow without leaks and eliminated the Holiday Inn's tangle of heat tape that gobbled up energy on the old roof. Tom Ross

"Unfortunately, we still have to use gas to heat the pools, so it's a killer," manager Pat Carney said. "I just paid Greeley Gas $7,000 last month (December 2000)."

Carney said it is difficult for her to compare last month's heating bill to the same period in 1999, because a year ago she was in the midst of a construction project and using different combinations of existing heaters to warm her pools. However, she was able to do a direct comparison of the heating bills for the Health and Rec building, excluding the pools.

The gas bill for the building includes the busy shower rooms and facilities for laundering towels, as well as heat for the building. In December 1999, Carney said her bill was $1,340, compared to $2,570 in December 2000. That's an increase of 91 percent.

Carney said mineral water from the Heart Spring comes out of the ground at 100 degrees, but quickly begins to cool, and without a heater, the temperature stabilizes at about 92 degrees. Bathers are happier when the pool is between 98 and 100 degrees. The nearby slide pool is cooled by water tumbling down the green plastic tube that gives pool visitors a cheap thrill. And the 250,000 gallon lap pool requires more energy use still, even though insulating covers are kept on 80 percent of its surface during winter days.

Carney said Health and Rec has always urged its guests and members to conserve shower water. She is studying the possibility of reducing the temperature of the pools a couple of degrees but said temperature controls aren't that fine, especially when the water heated by natural gas is mixed with geothermal water.

The situation is just as challenging for Steamboat's car washes, where hot, soapy water is their primary product. A spokeswoman for Quik Wash and Wax in Steamboat said they are preparing to raise the price of a car wash because their energy bills have gone up so dramatically.

David Bradshaw, manager of the Super 8 motel in Steamboat, said he knows he is spending more for energy this winter, but it is difficult to separate the amount attributable to natural gas price increases from the added cost of the motel's new outdoor pool and spa. Then there is the built-in heating system that keeps 1,350 square feet of concrete surrounding the pools free of snow.

Bradshaw said the motel's gas bill in December was $684.97. Of that total, he said he knows $143.37 was attributable to the spa area.

Bradshaw said the motel management team is looking at ways to save on energy.

"We've talked about the possibility of putting in shower heads with limited flow and temperature regulators," Bradshaw said.

If the Public Utilities Commission approves a rate hike for Greeley Gas in February, more and more local businesses will be taking a bath on energy costs.

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