Crowne Plaza Hotel - Colorado Springs, Colorado

Ancient equipment and exorbitant utility costs signal it’s time for a change

If a competition were held to find the country’s oldest continuously operating commercial HVAC system, the equipment which was used—until recently, with varying levels of success—to heat and cool the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Colorado Springs would definitely be a contender.

The old equipment, a combination of electric/electric multi-zone units and packaged rooftop units, was installed 35 years ago, when the hotel was new and the state of Colorado had imposed a moratorium on systems using natural gas. “The old equipment was great for comfort, but terribly inefficient,” said Denver-based Lennox territory manager Dave Garver. “At the time though, gas wasn’t an option.”

Fast forward to 2007

The hotel, then operating under the Sheraton brand, was purchased by a partnership that included Harrell Hospitality Group of Dallas. Harrell Hospitality then converted the hotel to a Crowne Plaza. With its breathtaking views of Pike’s Peak and the Colorado Rockies, 500 guest rooms and nearly 50,000 square feet of meeting space, the Crowne Plaza was an established, successful property. However, it was in need of a facelift according to Harrell Hospitality’s Vice President of Operations, Mark Hamner.

Amenities aren’t enough; comfort matters, too

The company spent $12 million on exterior and interior renovations to beautify and modernize the hotel. Meanwhile, the HVAC system was really showing its age. “It was a miracle the old equipment lasted as long as it did,” Garver said. “They had a guy at the hotel who was basically working as a human thermostat. He constantly had to climb up on the roof to toggle dampers. Cooling was a bigger issue than heating. People kept asking them to turn on the air conditioning, but it was already on and running full blast.”

While the renovation project was underway, a couple of the old multizone units failed completely and were replaced by new PMZs, manufactured by Custom Mechanical Equipment using Lennox® equipment. Hamner said the high-efficiency PMZs immediately began providing evidence of energy savings that helped his company reach the conclusion that replacing the entire HVAC system was the smart thing to do.

“We knew we needed to provide better climate control,” Hamner said. “And it just didn’t make economic sense to continue to operate these old pieces of equipment when we knew simply converting from electric to gas would make a huge difference in reducing our utility costs.”

So hotel management and Harrell Hospitality began working with Garver and Colorado Springs Lennox dealer Danny Rial, owner of Rial Heating & Air Conditioning, to come up with a plan.

Lennox Commercial tackles the big job

Following a careful assessment of the hotel’s needs, Garver and Rial drafted a proposal which called for replacing the remaining electric/electric multi-zone units with seven more CME-manufactured PMZs, along with installing 27 Energence® units to replace the old packaged rooftop units. All equipment includes BACnet® controls, with a front-end system hosted by CME.

“It was going to be a huge job,” said Rial, whose company handled all the mechanicals and subcontracted the electrical and gas work. Just working out a plan for retrofitting the building for natural gas required months of research. The facility did have existing gas lines used for the kitchen and laundry facilities and for some old boilers that had been changed out over the years. “But they had nowhere near the gas needed for the new HVAC system,” Rial explained.

Another challenge was designing a system for condensate drainage. “The new system would be producing condensate during both heating and cooling operation, which meant we had to bring the drains inside the building to avoid freezing during cold weather,” Rial said. “Figuring out how to fish our way through the building to connect with floor drains was a huge task—probably the biggest eye-opener of the project.”

Rebates provide momentum while financing creates challenges

During the planning process, the project really picked up steam when city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) offered $104,000 in rebates, which would take the form of credits on future electric bills. It was a win-win situation for both the hotel’s owners and the utility company.

“CSU had a pretty big stake in this project,” Garver said. Often unable to meet peak electrical demand during summer months, the utility was forced to buy power from other companies. “That’s very, very expensive,” Garver explained. “So they were eager to offer incentives to help the Crowne Plaza switch to natural gas.”

The next big challenge was securing the funds needed to replace the Crowne Plaza’s antiquated HVAC system—a project that ultimately cost $1.2 million. “During tough economic times, securing any traditional long-term financing proves to be an extremely difficult and onerous task, to say the least,” Hamner explained.

Nonetheless, Hamner said Harrell Hospitality was determined to proceed, given the fact that the project would essentially pay for itself, thanks to the combined utility rebates and long-term energy-cost reductions. “It took almost two years, but with the support of our existing lender, we were finally given the go-ahead to tap our reserves to pay for the HVAC renovation.”

“It’s a go!”

With the funds then in place, Harrell Hospitality notified Lennox and Rial Heating and Air that they could begin tearing out the old equipment and installing the new. “Amazingly,” Hamner said, “the install was accomplished in just a few months—right in the middle of our peak summer season!”

Danny Rial said getting the install completed quickly and without disrupting the hotel’s busy convention business required careful coordination with the hotel’s General Manager, David York. “He would give me updates weekly on what ballrooms or meeting rooms were booked so we could schedule the installation of the units needed to cool those rooms accordingly.”

The team from Rial Heating and Air had the entire system up and running by September 22. Since then, the Lennox® equipment has received rave reviews. Lennox Commercial’s Dave Garver said there were moments when he wasn’t sure the project would ever get the final go-ahead. “But now, everybody’s ecstatic!”

Mark Hamner is eagerly monitoring the system’s energy savings as he works on the Crowne Plaza’s 2011 budget. He said for the first 15 to 20 days the system was in operation, energy usage was already down approximately 37 percent. “We’ll continue to monitor,” Hamner promised, “and we anticipate that number is going to be closer to 50 or 55 percent.”

Hamner is extremely pleased with the BACnet controls that allow Harrell staff in Dallas and the hotel’s own personnel to monitor HVAC operations online 24/7. “It’s just incredible what we’ve been able to do to assure our guests’ comfort,” Hamner said. “We can view airflow, inside and outside temperatures, we can turn units on or off. We can control everything from a little laptop at home if we want to.”

Sure beats having to send the “human thermostat” up a ladder onto the rooftop.