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Breitenbush Hot Springs logo

Heat at Breitenbush

Published September 22nd, 2008 in Community Perspectives

radiatorsThe community at Breitenbush is entirely “off the grid”, meaning no access to electricity, natural gas or other utilities provided to metro-America. We’re on our own. We use the river to generate electricity. And we use the hot springs to generate heat for our buildings.

Breitenbush’s heating system was developed in what we call our “pioneer period”, between 1977 (when we bought the abandoned ghost-resort) and 1981. In the most basic view, there are six components of our heating system: geothermal wells, heat exchangers in the wells, underground pipes connecting buildings to the wells, circulation pumps, cast iron radiators, and finally the buildings themselves, i.e. the envelope that surrounds the radiators. We humans inhabit those heated envelopes.

First we bought an antique well driller (circa 1946) and learned to use the thing by drilling geothermal wells (a time-consuming and dangerous enterprise). We hit spectacularly on two of them, complete with boiling 60-foot geysers. Then we constructed “down-hole heat exchangers” made of 2” steel pipe descending hundreds of feet down each well bore to a tight 180° bend, then coming back up to the surface—picture a thousand feet of pipe in a 500’ long U-shape. Next we dug miles of trenches and installed send & return pipes to and from each building. Once all that infrastructure was in place, we scoured the countryside looking for old cast iron radiators to install into the cabins and Lodge (more on this later).

Here’s how it works. We send cold, domestic water down one side of the heat exchanger in each well. By the time it gets down to the bottom, the water is about 190 degrees hot. The reason of course is that the hot springs water in the well bore heats the metal of the pipe and the hot pipe in turn heats the cold water inside the pipe. And since cold falls and heat rises, a natural “thermo-syphon” engine has been created.

From the wellhead the hot water travels underground through copper pipes into, then out of, every radiator in every building at Breitenbush. Radiators didn’t get their name for nothing—they radiate heat transferred from the hot water passing through them. The now cooler water then returns back to the well, is reheated, and off it goes again for another round.

This closed loop system heats some 130 buildings over many acres on both sides of the river, and maintenance of it is labor intensive. From time to time, radiators crack or develop leaks that require replacement. Also, as radiators age they oxidize and rust, creating clogs and reducing overall flow and efficiency. Every year we replace a few radiators and clear out clogged units.

Which leads us back to my mention of scouring the countryside looking for radiators. We’re always looking for more of these functioning antiques. So here’s a pitch. If you have any old radiators, especially smaller ones that can be moved by one or two people, please consider donating them to Breitenbush Hot Springs. Only caveat is, we need hot water radiators, not steam. You can tell by how they’re made: hot water radiators have pipes that connect to the fins along the top and bottom of the radiator; steam radiators have a pipe that connects only along the bottom.

When we first settled at Breitenbush, there wasn’t a single radiator here, and now there are hundreds. Some of the radiators are even older than the historic buildings they’re installed in. Isn’t that cool? If you can help, who knows, you might come visit some day and recognize the radiator that heats your cabin—because you hooked us up with it in the first place.

– Peter Moore