Sun to play role in heating water at senior home

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Ernie Sota stands in the summer rain holding a 5-foot-long glass tube, one of hundreds that will sit on the roof of a Ross retirement home to capture the energy of the sun.

Mr. Sota has spent the past 30 years figuring out ways to make buildings more energy efficient, and now he's explaining the merits of something called a solar domestic hot water heating array, which will use the sun's energy to heat all of the water in the 94,000-square-foot RossHill Retirement Residence on Ross Park Drive.

It is one of the biggest installations of its type in Western Pennsylvania and was funded with $210,000 from the Pennsylvania Energy Harvest Grant program.

Once up and running, the system is expected to generate immediate savings of $10,000 per year in energy costs at the retirement home, which offers affordable housing for senior citizens, most of whom qualify based on income.

"By driving down the cost of the utilities, we're helping ensure the rents stay low for the seniors there," Mr. Sota said.

Usually, the first thing that comes to mind with solar power is long rows of flat panels. But Mr. Sota, who runs Sota Construction Services Inc. in Ross, said this system, which uses glass tubes, is much more efficient in our climate.

Light hits the clear vacuum tube, heating an element inside, which, in turn, heats a manifold. When water passes through the manifold, it is heated and stored to be used when needed.

The south-facing slope of the roof is being fitted for the system by Tudi Mechanical, which also engineered the installation.

Mr. Sota has worked closely with Victor Rodriguez and his father, Tony, of a.m. Rodriguez Associates, the building's owners, who develop affordable housing mostly for seniors. They have partnered since 1994 to try to make buildings as green as possible, working together on six projects totaling 450 units.

Mr. Sota has incorporated innovative techniques into buildings over the years. Buildings are situated to take advantage of a southern exposure, and some include a system in which circulating water absorbs heat on the south side of the building and releases it on the cooler north side.

The system being installed at RossHill is expected to produce 1.7 million British thermal units per day and, over the course of a year, eliminate 38 tons of carbon emissions by replacing the conventional natural gas hot water system.

"By making these buildings more efficient, it has an impact on how much coal we burn for electricity," Mr. Rodriguez said. "That's what we're trying to reduce, our carbon footprint."

Gregory Boulos is an owner of Urban Homesteaders, a general consulting company on the South Side that focuses on sustainability projects. He teamed with the building owners and Mr. Sota to write the Department of Environmental Protection grant awarded last summer.

"I'm pretty proud of it," Mr. Boulos said. "The Urban Homesteaders have been getting involved with a lot of projects around the area. Seeing any one of them be a success is a rewarding experience."

His team often is seen as the stereotypical tree huggers bent on changing the world, but in many cases, he said, it's the bottom line that drives projects like this one.

"It demonstrates that technologies that have a short payback period would be viable for any business to put in at this time," he said. "There's a dollar value attached to a lot of these things that makes sense for any business, whether they are particularly environmental or not."

His company has been joined by others in the region to provide various green building techniques, and he hopes the trend continues.

"The dream is that other businesses spring up all around Pittsburgh that are doing the same thing and advocating the same kind of actions," he said.

But the bottom line for Mr. Boulos and his associates comes down to resources -- how many are available and how fast they are dwindling.

"Our consumption level is completely off from how we need to sustain ourselves through future generations," he said.

Doug Oster can be reached at or 724-772-9177.


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