Student Project Leads to Prototype Snowmelt System at Greater Binghamton

Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

Officials at Greater Binghamton Airport (BGM) are enjoying the "green glow" of a $1.25 million geothermal system recently installed at the New York facility. In addition to powering a prototype snow melting system that reduces airfield maintenance costs and improves ground boarding operations, the geothermal system also increases the efficiency of the terminal's air conditioning system by 50% and prevents the emission of 93 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

And it all started with a group of college kids from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

A team of students, led by Professor William Ziegler, hatched the idea for BGM's geothermal system when competing in the FAA Design Competition. The annual program challenges undergraduate and graduate students to develop innovative approaches to aircraft technology and airport design.    

When Ziegler approached BGM about the project, Airport Commissioner Carl Beardsley fostered the

Project: Geothermal System
Location: Greater Binghamton (NY) Airport
Delivers Power To: Prototype snowmelt system for apron; air conditioning system for terminal
Total Cost: $1.25 million
Funding: $900,000 from FAA for snow melting system; $350,000 from NY State Energy Research
& Development Authority for terminal cooling system
Installation: May 2012 - Oct. 2014
Project Manager: McFarland Johnson
General Contractor: FE Jones Construction
Plumbing: Petcosky & Sons Plumbing & Heating
Electrical: Nelcorp Electrical Contracting
Key Benefits: 50% greater efficiency in air conditioning system, which prevents the annual emission of 93 metric tons of carbon dioxide; powering snowmelt system with geothermal vs. existing oil-fired boilers is estimated to save 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions/year

idea and connected the student team with McFarland Johnson, the planning and construction company BGM has worked with since the 1980s. The firm is not only well versed in airport operations, but also in geothermal technology from previous projects, explains Beardsley. 

As the team brainstormed, the students honed in on BGM's persistent snow management challenges (it receives more than 84 inches per year) and developed an idea to use geothermal technology to power a radiant heating system for melting snow on the airfield. Although the students knew little about the specifics of geothermal energy and radiant heat, they were optimistic about their base idea. 

"At one time, I owned a car wash that used a radiant system to heat the floors; so I knew a little bit about it," says Professor Ziegler. "But as far as we knew, there were no airports using it. We started digging in and getting on the Internet and talking to people ... and the airport was an excellent resource as our research facility."

Serving as the team's advisor, McFarland Johnson Senior Vice President Chad Nixon encouraged the students to scale back their initial intention of heating all of BGM's pavement. "I told them that might be a little ambitious, and that led to the idea for the terminal area apron prototype," explains Nixon.

Like many cold-climate airports, BGM spends a significant amount of overall operating expenses on airfield snow removal and deicing. Current industry processes are time-consuming and accrue labor, equipment and material costs. The use of sand can cause damage to aircraft engines, and many deicing chemicals are considered environmentally unfriendly. In addition, the Transportation Research Board has been investigating a potential link between potassium acetate and premature wear on concrete runways for years.

According to Beardsley, BGM budgets approximately $200,000 per year for snow removal. This figure includes the cost of sand, sodium acetate, labor and other related expenses. The airport spends another $200,000 per year for electricity in the passenger terminal building and to light its main apron. Another $150,000 is spent annually heating the passenger terminal building. The students' project took direct aim at all these expenses.

"Radiant heating using geothermal technology is a low-maintenance and environmentally friendly solution for ice and snow prevention on airport surfaces," explains Ziegler.

Geothermal 101

The basic premise of radiant heating systems is to circulate heated fluid through tubing under a surface and radiate its energy evenly to heat a room, surface or building. Geothermal heat pumps do not generate energy; they instead provide a means of harnessing stored thermal energy underground.

Interestingly, geothermal systems can support both heating and cooling requirements.

During winter, geothermal heat pumps collect thermal energy from beneath Earth's surface through a series of pipes, called a loop, installed below the surface of the ground or submersed in a body of water. A secondary pump circulates fluid, typically refrigerant or a glycol/water mixture, through the loop and carries the heat back to the main pump installation. An electrically driven compressor and a heat exchanger then concentrate the energy, making it available for use at a higher temperature.

In summer, a geothermal system acts in a reverse cycle, similar to a refrigerator. Pumps move excess heat from a target location underground into a relatively cool area beneath Earth's surface. By utilizing the ground as a heat sink in the summer, the system offsets the change to soil temperature sustained during winter months around the installation area. 

A drainage system is also important, notes Ziegler, because water is inefficient at conducting heat. With a good drainage system, the water is displaced and the geothermal heat pumps can work properly, he explains.

According the students' proposal, geothermal heat pumps are 300% to 400% more efficient than standard power sources and are "topographically suited" for installation at many airports. The collegiate team analyzed successful commercial radiant system installations, expanded previous installations to a scale suitable for airports, and concluded that a radiant system installed during a routine pavement tear-up is a viable alternative to current deicing methods.

The proposal nabbed 1st place in the 2009 FAA Design Competition, Airport Operations and Maintenance category. And in 2012, the FAA awarded BGM $900,000 to design and build a prototype of the students' prize-winning system for melting apron snow.

"I wasn't surprised that the students won; it's a great idea," says Nixon. "The idea of using geothermal and radiant heating at airports has been batted around, but no one had brought it to an airport in this manner."

After receiving FAA funding, BGM successfully applied to New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for an additional $350,000 to help expand the geothermal project for summer cooling. Although the state authority has funded several geothermal system installations in the past, this was the first time it funded an airport project.

Once the grant money was awarded, the airport folded the plan into a large, existing construction project to maximize efficiency. "I would recommend considering a project like this when you have a major rehabilitation project on your apron," notes Nixon. "You wouldn't want to rip out your apron to put this in; it wouldn't be cost effective."

Working For an "A"

As a prototype, BGM's system includes a series of sensors and monitors to gather data about its performance. "We have been engaged in numerous sustainability projects," says Nixon. "These projects can sometimes be difficult to quantify directly, however this project has immediate benefits."

Ongoing testing will help quantify the all-important cost/benefit ratio of BGM's new systems. "We believe in projects that are Earth-friendly, but the project should also consider a monetary payback to the airport. It's being green in more than one way, and we believe that's important for airports," Nixon notes. "Airports are businesses, and they want to be environmentally friendly, but also effective and efficient."

Officials at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority hope BGM's geothermal system will serve as a model for other airports that want to cut costs, reduce fossil fuel dependence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "This project underscores Greater Binghamton Airport's commitment to sustainability," says Todd Baldyga, the authority's director of energy efficiency services. "Projects that incorporate renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies are critical to the state's efforts to scale up the clean energy economy and help to support Governor Cuomo's agenda of a cleaner environment for all New Yorkers." 

BGM's initiative also helps create a positive first impression about the community, adds Baldyga. Educational kiosks within the terminal give visitors a glimpse into the geothermal technology being used to power airport systems. The presentations help show the benefits that a renewable energy source such as geothermal can have on the environment, he explains.

"In the winter, our passengers will be safer," says Beardsley. "They can walk to the terminal without worrying about slipping on the snow and ice. And in the summer, we'll be able to reduce our energy costs while still providing a cool, comfortable environment for our passengers. Ultimately, the reduction of energy costs will make us more attractive to airlines, because we'll be able to reduce our overall costs."

Overall, airport officials are very positive about the changes the geothermal system will bring, and McFarland Johnson is working to quantify the changes in objective terms. "We'll document the project and measure it," says Nixon. "And if the system is as successful as we think it will be, we'll keep it in mind for the next opportunity to expand it."

The airport's next step is a full-scale sustainability study, and the geothermal project provided a natural springboard to it.

"This project gives other airports a very good understanding about how a strong, community-oriented collaboration can work," summarizes Beardsley. "In this instance, each group worked together to reach one common goal, and I'm very proud of the results. It ended up being the perfect storm of individuals from education, the private sector and public service."


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