An artist's rendering of part of the Villa Portifino retirement community, now under construction in Palm Desert, California.

PALM DESERT, CA — Everyone knows the problems California has had recently with electricity. The rolling blackouts have made news several times over the last few months, and those happened during a time when air conditioning wasn’t being used heavily. There is genuine concern about what will happen when the real hot weather hits this summer.

But Villa Portofino won’t have to worry about whether its residents stay cool. The new retirement resort being developed here will rely on gas-fired chillers, while a backup generator will be installed to provide the small amount of electricity these chillers need should blackouts roll through this part of the state.

Robur's Servel gas-fired cooling units were chosen for the project.

High-Class Development

Villa Portofino is a sprawling development for adults nearing — or at — retirement age. The resort will include over 400 casitas (approximately 1,800 sq ft each) and villas (approximately 1,400 sq ft each), which will be built in pods. There will be five casitas in a pod and 12 villas in a pod. It is expected to take three years for the development to be completed.

In addition to the housing, a 30,000-sq-ft clubhouse and a 9,000-sq-ft fitness center will keep residents busy. Eventually, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility could be built on-site, so residents could move from being independent to being totally dependent in the same complex — an idea that’s catching on at other retirement developments around the country.

What makes this resort unique is that its developer wanted something different. He was interested in a quiet, reliable, low-maintenance cooling system that was not vulnerable to blackouts.

Fortunately, Roy Simpson, chief engineer, Building Systems Design Group, Helendale, CA, had the answer for him.

“When I began talking to the developer, I had these grandiose ideas of a central chiller plant, but he was looking for something that could be built bit by bit, without the upfront costs for a central plant and distribution system,” says Simpson. “What I did then was to present him with six traditional alternatives, as well as Robur’s gas-fired cooling units.”

The developer liked the idea of gas cooling and gave Simpson the green light. The initial plan was to have each casita serviced by its own Servel GAX 5-ton gas-fired chiller, a boiler, and air handler with a four-pipe fancoil. The boiler didn’t make the final cut, however, and it was replaced with a gas-fired furnace with a chilled water coil. Then it was suggested that these 5-ton chillers could be ganged together in a more remote location, and together they would serve a particular pod.

The developer was so enamored with the idea of gas cooling that he decided to use it for the clubhouse and fitness center as well. “ The magnitude of this thing is astonishing,” says Simpson. “If you add up the tonnage for the residential portion, it’s about 3,100 tons. The 5-ton units will be in groups of 20, 25, and 30 tons. The clubhouse is a 150-ton job, so there are 750-ton chillers in three banks of 25 on either side of the clubhouse. The beauty of this is that you can just stack chillers as you need them. They’re incredibly flexible in that respect.”

The fitness center will require 60 tons, which will be placed on the roof in two banks of 30 tons each. For the clubhouse, landscaping is expected to “hide” the banks of chillers. The fitness center will hide the rooftop chillers well, as there are towers, cupolas, and other architectural features to keep them from view.

Low Maintenance A Plus

One of the biggest advantages to ganging the chillers together is that if one is broken or down for maintenance, at least some will keep going. In addition, there’s not a whole lot of maintenance that needs to be done on the units.

“Before this job, I hadn’t worked with Robur before, but I have had experience with the Arkla Servels that Robur replaced. I’ve seen Arklas that were 30 and 40 years old just humming along like the day they were made,” says Simpson.

He adds that they’re very simple pieces of equipment, that have no ozone depletion potential (ODP) and little greenhouse effect, which makes them environmentally friendly. The resort will have its own maintenance staff to make sure the equipment is properly serviced.

Of course, all of this comes with a price. Simpson estimates that compared to a straight split residential system, the equipment is about 70% more expensive than equivalent air-cooled equipment.

“But you have to remember that they’re going to last three times as long,” says Simpson. “And the owner won’t be exposed to blackouts, because these things do not take a lot of electricity. All you have to do is drive some very low horsepower fans and some low horsepower pumps, so it’s quite feasible to put in a generator big enough to drive the whole system, whereas electrically you obviously couldn’t do that.”

The developer plans to have a backup generator big enough to carry the clubhouse, as well as some of the residential units.

Simpson still would have liked to design a central hybrid plant with gas and electric chillers, so it could be switched to either fuel source. But he understands that would entail a lot of upfront costs, which the developer wouldn’t accept. And he’s happy with the outcome. “I’d really like to use these chillers in as many places as I could, because I honestly think they’re a good idea,” said Simpson. “But like most engineers, I’m pretty cautious until I see them working properly.”

He adds that other gas cooling installations in the Los Angeles area seem to be working just fine, but he wants to wait and see how the desert temperatures treat the units. “Desert temperatures are a killer on equipment.”

Sidebar: California Asks for $9 Billion Power Refund

WASHINGTON, DC — California Governor Gray Davis recently told a U.S. Senate hearing that power companies have “bilked” his state out of billions of dollars in overcharges and he demanded $9 billion in refunds.

“It is unconscionable for the generators to profit from their egregious overcharges,” said Davis. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) “must move quickly to enforce the law and order the energy companies to give back the money.”

He claimed that FERC “looked the other way” as the power companies “bilked our state.”

“There has been no evidence to suggest that suppliers bilked anyone,” stated Mark Stultz, vice president of the Electric Power Supply Association.

In the hearing before the Senate’s Governmental Affairs committee, chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Davis said that California officials estimated that over the last year, power companies overcharged his state by almost $9 billion. To date, FERC has mandated $124 million in refunds for overcharges.

Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) blamed the governor for not addressing California’s energy problems sooner. “How was it that you seemed to let things get totally out of hand?” he said to Davis.

Publication date: 07/09/2001