Under the Dome: Energy retrofit grows savings and reliability at Montreal Biodôme
The Montréal Biodôme last year celebrated its 20th birthday. This nature exhibition has attracted roughly 17.3 million visitors since it opened in 1992, making it the most visited paid tourist attraction in Montreal.
However, it most noteworthy for being the only institution in the world that brings together five entirely different ecosystems under the same roof. This is an accomplishment whose realization relied not only on complex technologies but also on settings as authentic as nature itself and on animal and plant collections that are highly varied and typical of each habitat.
Rachel Léger, director of the Biodôme since 2006 and a member of the Biodôme’s design team, says when they created the Biodôme, they wanted visitors to marvel at the beauty and diversity of habitats found in the Americas, “with the goal of encouraging behaviours that are respectful of the environment. Twenty years later, we still rely on the effect of positive messages.
“We want people to keep hope alive and to take action, on however small a scale.”
The Biodôme has put its commitments to sustainable development in concrete form by integrating new, more efficient technologies at every level of its operations. As part of the energy-conservation program launched by this Space for Life, an open-circuit geothermal system has been installed, along with an energy-recovery system and energy-efficient lighting.
The comprehensive $8.1-million energy retrofit, designed and implemented by Quebec-based energy-efficiency firm Ecosystem in partnership with the Montréal Space for Life, cut the Biodôme’s energy costs by 52 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent. All project costs, including the extensive heating, cooling and lighting equipment upgrades, are being repaid by the resulting energy savings and $1.6 million in government and utility incentives.
“What’s wonderful about this project is that the cost is entirely covered by the savings,” said Jean Bouvrette, project leader and head of technical services for the Montréal Space for Life. “In addition, the project is self-financed and allowed us to replace nearly $2 million worth of old equipment as part of the building’s energy efficiency measures.”
Implemented from 2008 to 2010, the project was designed to dig deeper into the existing energy infrastructure while improving conditions for the Biodôme’s plant life and furry and feathered occupants. The humans didn’t miss out either — improvements to heating, air conditioning and lighting made a big difference in offices and public areas.
Some of the most innovative measures involved recycling energy from one ecosystem to the other; for example, heat from the sub-polar regions ecosystems is now being used to keep the tropical rainforest warm. In addition, after ground water was found under the Biodôme it was integrated into a cutting-edge open-loop geothermal system now used to heat and cool the building. Better quality and more energy efficient lighting was also part of the project.
So how was the old two-loop system inefficient, and how does the new heat recovery system solve this problem? “Before the project, chilled water and steam came from an independent supplier and were used to cool and heat the Biodôme,” Bouvrette said. “Both energy sources were often used at the same time and sometimes at cross purposes, which increased costs considerably.”
And as many of the animals are quite sensitive to temperature changes, “the new system was designed to keep performance changes to a minimum with respect to the previous system,” he added.
Prior to the retrofit, some of the equipment that had been in place was a bane on the maintenance department’s existence. Bouvrette went over some of the inefficiencies and reliability issues.
The old reciprocating compressors — 10 parallel units — used to cool the penguin-heavy sub-polar ecosystems “performed poorly and leaked occasionally, affecting operations and the environment,” he says. Before the project, there were 10 reciprocating chillers; after the project, “we now have four screw chillers, including one with two screws. The screw chillers have no moving parts, unlike reciprocating chillers. Useful life before major maintenance is now much longer for the screw chillers.”
As well, the old lamps had one high-intensity discharge (HID) 2,000-Watt bulb, two (double ballast) transformers and a poorly performing reflector. “Replacing the bulb and transformers had become problematic, both because of cost and the availability of replacement parts,” Bouvrette said. “There was also a problem with reliability: ballasts were exposed to the sun, which caused them to overheat. They then made a noise that could be heard in the ecosystems.” The lamps were replaced by a high-efficiency 1,000-Watt model the company says is much more reliable. Maintenance for lighting the ecosystems has been reduced since the useful life of the new ballasts is much longer; ballasts are now away from the light fixtures and out of direct sunlight.
Overall maintenance costs have fallen considerably since the whole steam system — including pumping trap, steam trap, steam valve, condensing tank, etc. — and all obsolete equipment was removed. This made way for much simpler heat pumps and 30-per-cent-glycol cooling and heating systems that are very reliable when it comes to maintenance.
The program has gained recognition for after implementing this cutting-edge energy-saving program. Last February, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) presented its 2012 Sustainable Communities Award in the energy category to the Space for Life for the quality of its program; and the Association québécoise pour la maîtrise de l’énergie (AQME) presented them the Énergia award in the existing buildings (institutional) category.
More recently, Ecosystem and Montréal Space for Life received the 2013 ASHRAE Technology Award for the public-assembly building category. The project — part of a broader energy savings program that includes the Insectarium and Botanical Garden — was the sole Canadian entry to earn a first-place finish for the international prize presented by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers in recognition of the successful application of outstanding building design. This was the fifth award for the broader energy-saving program at the Space for Life, which comprises the Biodôme, Botanical Garden and Insectarium.
“This project is a wonderful example of how best practices translate into exceptional, concrete results,” said Andre Rochette, Ecosystem’s president and CEO. “Our firm’s compensation was dependent on reaching the Ville de Montréal’s ambitious energy savings and GHG reduction targets. The interests of client and supplier were thus perfectly aligned, laying the groundwork for a creative deep energy retrofit. The city led the way with a model that generates significant value for building owners from any sector of activity.”
Ecosystem is an independent and ISO-certified firm of energy efficiency professionals operating in Canada and the U.S. Over the past 20 years, the firm has focused exclusively on the design, installation and optimization of super-efficient building energy infrastructures. Its turnkey projects enable building owners to drastically reduce operating costs, renew critical assets, free up capital for other improvements and provide appealing spaces for occupants.
André Voshart is the editor of PEM.