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Home > Prof Puts PHC's Natural Resources to Use

Prof Puts PHC's Natural Resources to Use

February 12th, 2010

By Gabrielle Ryan; originally published in PHC Herald

CONTACT:  David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
(540) 441-8722

PHC Physics professor Dr. Michael Kucks at work in the classroom

Patrick Henry College’s Physics professor, Dr. Michael Kucks, has taken on a new project this semester – to heat and cool the PHC dorms using the college’s drainage pond, “Lake Bob.”

With the extreme weather differences at the school, the heat and cooling systems at the College occasionally fail. Coils that regulate temperature within the outdoor heating boxes can overheat in the summer and freeze in the winter. After some reflection, Dr. Kucks figured that using water from Lake Bob might be an answer for moderating the coils temperature year-round, thereby cutting utility costs.

“Even in the heat of summer, when it can be 95-plus degrees, the bottom of the pond is much cooler,” explained professor Kucks, who specializes in hydrodynamics. “Similarly, in the winter the surface can be frozen across, but at the bottom the water is still warm enough to heat the coils.”

During winter, the coils must be energized with cool air to keep them from overheating (and vice versa in the summer). Since this requires a great deal of electricity and is not always reliable, Kucks designed a geothermal system that utilizes the steadier temperatures of Lake Bob to cool and heat the coils.

Due to Lake Bob’s highly acidic composition, the project has until recently been kept low-profile, simply because Kucks and his team weren’t sure if it would work. Kucks has been working with PHC sophomore Chris Baird since January, putting together materials and preparing for operation. Baird, he says, has been his right hand man, providing “supporting muscle and brain.” They are currently testing the system in Oak Hill, the smaller men’s dorm, with a 500-foot pipe running to the middle of Lake Bob and back.

Dr. Kucks explains the workings of an electrical circuit

“We’re really trying to be good stewards,” he said. “If we see that the savings in the long run are worth the initial expense and construction, then we will keep working on it.”

Though the initial output for Kuck’s pilot testing and comparison analysis is only a few thousand dollars, setting the entire school up on the system would require a substantial investment.

“It would be very expensive,” he said. “But if the system works right and efficiently, we could be looking at saving on our heating costs up to even 50 or 60 percent,” he said.

A staunch Red Hill supporter, Baird views the prospect of using Lake Bob’s sludgy water to heat the dorms as more than a little humorous. Referencing the school’s mythic water monster and the men’s dorms athletic rivalry, he observes: “The Lake Bob monster is back, and it’s going to eat D4! Too bad the monster doesn’t play football.”

Winter weather has put the project temporarily on hold, awaiting final adjustments, but Kucks is looking for the pilot test sites to be operational toward the middle to end of February.