Around here, Robert Thuston has big ideas for homes and businesses that help them keep their bills low. So, while he’s officially Alagasco’s“coordinator for architects and engineers,” we like to think of him as our green-building guru.
After graduating with a Masters degree in building science from Auburn University, he initially worked for a contractor, but we snagged him up three years ago knowing that he could team up with home builders and designers to help folks make smarter energy decisions. With his assistance, we’ve won just about every green design and green building award in Alabama. And, his expertise has earned him a chairman position on Birmingham’s branch of the United States Green Building Council.
We recently sat down with Robert to chat about energy efficiency and Natural Gas technology.
Q: So, Robert, you’re Alagasco’s coordinator for architects and engineers. Tell us a little more about what that means.
ROBERT: A lot of different things, really, but it’s probably best to think of me as an advocate for Natural Gas. I’m working with architects and engineers every day, to find out what projects are developing in Birmingham and around the state to help them discover new ways to incorporate Natural Gas technologies into their designs. It’s generally an easy sell because using Natural Gas is often the “greenest” solution and can save homeowners and business owners money over the alternatives. I’d be lying though, if I said I didn’t run into obstacles sometimes. There’s this perception among some folks that switching to Natural Gas appliances and equipment is going to cost more and that the status quo works just fine, but we’re consistently able to demonstrate the value which convinces them to switch.
Q: What are some of the technologies you’re advocating?
ROBERT: One of the most popular Natural Gas technologies is the tankless water heater. With a standard water heater, you’re typically paying to heat, say, 40 gallons of water that just sits there most of the time, waiting for you to use it. When you’re at work or on vacation, the heater is still keeping the water in the tank piping hot—a real waste of energy, and money. But with a tankless heater, we use Natural Gas to heat water coming into the house, so you’re only paying for the hot water you want to use, when you want to use it. That’s just one of many Natural Gas improvements available for the home, though. We’re also seeing more interest in Natural Gas heat pumps, air-handling systems and the one you’re probably most familiar with…Natural Gas furnaces.
Q: You mentioned a Natural Gas heat pump. What’s that?
ROBERT: Great question. A Natural Gas heat pump is one of the newest and most exciting Natural Gas technologies. Currently, it is only made for commercial water heating and air conditioning used in businesses. We hope that this is a technology that can soon be utilized in the residential home, but right now, it’s made for big spaces (3,500-4,000 square feet). The Natural Gas heat pump is a single unit you can use to heat and cool your business—like a furnace and air conditioner all in one. It’s hard to explain without getting into the physics of it, but think of it this way: your A/C works by taking heat out, not by putting cold air in. A Natural Gas heat pump does that too, but it can also do the reverse – pull heat from the outside air—even cold winter air—and send it inside, which can provide 150 percent efficiency.
Q: Let’s back up a second. So you can actually cool a space with Natural Gas?
ROBERT: That’s right. It’s a little counterintuitive, because most people think of heat when they think of Natural Gas. Natural Gas is the good heat, but it can cool really well, too. An added benefit is that a Natural Gas heat pump is actually a cleaner way to heat and cool your business. We all need electricity, however using Natural Gas in your business is better for the environment. The majority of the electricity produced in Alabama is produced by burning coal. Using Natural Gas in your business can reduce your businesses carbon emissions by 50%.
Q: What about air handling?
ROBERT: It’s another area where Alagasco can provide green solutions for architects and building engineers. For instance, in large buildings like schools and research labs, you need to bring a lot of air into a huge space. It sounds straightforward, but in practice it’s not, especially in a humid climate like we have here in the South. You don’t want to send outside air straight into a building—that could cause mold, mildew, a lot of nasty stuff—it needs to be cooled down first to pull out the water, like sweat on a glass of tea. Then, to make it comfortable, you heat it up again. That’s a task where Natural Gas makes perfect sense. You can heat and cool in these large scale applications using a clean, green resource.
Q: I’m guessing the Alagasco’s new Center for Energy Technology in Birmingham incorporated a lot of these technologies.
ROBERT: Yes, these and more. When we began renovating the building, which was originally a railroad freight terminal built in 1905, we knew we wanted to pursue LEED certification—that’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the gold standard for rating how “healthy” a building is. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we could incorporate every ounce of efficiency and sustainability in the facility. In turn, the building has given Alagasco a great demonstration space for all the technologies we’ve been talking about today as well as winning us so many awards that the CET probably deserve it’s own trophy case.
For more information about Green Building, check out our Green Building Guide.