TENAKEE SPRINGS — The first time Kevin Allred visited Tenakee Springs, he knew it had geothermal possibilities.
“I remember looking over the beach. I could smell sulfur… I could see plumes of steam from the warm springs,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, what an incredible resource. You could even heat houses with that water.’”
Tenakee residents already made at least one good use of the warm springs; instead of having showers in their homes, many people use the communal bath. But though some residents were interested in the idea of using the warm water to heat homes and buildings, some studies said it wasn’t possible, Allred said — for one, the water wasn’t thought to be hot enough.
The primary spring, where the public bathhouse is, measures 106 degrees Fahrenheit when it comes out of the water and 103 after it’s been used for a few baths and pours onto the beach.
When Allred and his family moved to Tenakee, he still thought it could be done. So he started with his own place and installed geothermal heating in his house.
“At that time there was an oil furnace (heating the changing room in the bathhouse,)” Allred said. “It was really silly to me that they were using oil to heat it (the changing room) with all this warm water right in the next room. Anyway… I did the numbers and it looked to me like it could be done, and so I did it, and it works.”
So far, he’s installed geothermal heating in three residences, two businesses and the bathhouse, he said. He taught himself how to create all these systems through internet research, he said.
He uses different systems depending on the spring and the building where he’s installing heat. To heat the Snyder Mercantile building, which is next to the bathhouse, he uses the runoff from the bathhouse. That water goes into an insulated box, heats a coil of metal pipes inside it, and those pipes carry heat — not water — into the building. He uses a similar strategy for the changing room at the bathhouse, with some additional seeps he found underneath it when he was restoring it. In some buildings, the systems he’s built circulate warm water.
In all those instances, the remaining water, a few degrees cooler, ends up where it always has – steaming a path down to the water on Tenakee’s beach.
Before Allred installed geothermal in the building, Snyder Mercantile store owner Ken Merrillo could spend between $300 and $500 a month on diesel for heat, he said. The geothermal system helps the store keep its prices down.
“It ran on high all the time and never warmed up,” he said.
Now the Snyder Mercantile Building doesn’t pay anything for heat, and the coldest it got inside the building last winter was 57 degrees, Merrillo said.
That building is the largest project he’s done so far, Allred said. The parts of it in a private residence being built on the second floor haven’t yet been tested – but overall, there is more than 6,000 feet — more than a mile — of tubing in the building’s walls.
It hasn’t all been straightforward. The spring water coming from the bathhouse tends to grow bacteria, for example, that can plug up the system. Allred prayed about it and got the idea of using a “flush” system on a timed, regular basis. The force of the water washes out all the accumulated growth.
The capacity for geothermal heat in Tenakee isn’t endless, Allred said — as it is, he estimates there’s enough for more, but not enough to heat all Tenakee’s homes.
Eventually, he said, he hopes that people will use their warm water wells to heat their homes.
He also theorizes that there may be submarine springs in the ocean. After all, they’re on land — why would they stop emerging just because they’re covered by water?
“That could be captured and heat a portion (of the town), if not the whole town,” Allred said, though he added that finding a spring and financing such a project would be the difficulty.
“The neat thing about up here is since we’re kind of insulated from a lot of the technological stuff going on down south, things kind of evolve differently,” Allred said. “It’s kind of like the way animals evolve according to their environment. We come up with different ideas that might be fairly unique. We kind of just develop our own systems and make them work.”
“You can be creative,” his wife Carlene Allred added, “because nobody is telling you what to do.”
• Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.