Nothing But Sunshine

Scott Webb Headshot
First commercial pool completely solar powered
Sunlight alone drives the pumps at the first commercial pool in the U.S. to be powered entirely off the grid —All photos courtesy Pacific Solar Products

There are countless community pools in North America like the one at Hawaiian Shores, a subdivision south of Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s of modest size (110,000 gallons) and ordinary shape, and draws a crowd on weekends like any other.

But there’s something unique about this commercial pool — all of the power to drive its filtration pumps comes from the sun. It’s the first such installation in our hemisphere, according to Michael Moylan, president of Pacific Solar Products, the Hawaiian distributor for the photovoltaic pumping system that is manufactured by Lorentz Solar Pumps and master distributed by American West Windmill & Solar.

While the term “solar power” is often used in the pool industry, it typically refers to passive solar heating of pool water, where water runs through black, radiant-heat absorbing tubes and back into the pool. There are some solar pumps on backyard pools as well, but using sunlight to create electric current sufficient to drive the filtration pumps of a commercial-size pool, with no backup — that’s new.

“On the residential side, we’ve been taking swimming pools completely off the grid for years,” Moylan says. “And they’ve got solar-assisted pumps for commercial pools and private pools, but taking a swimming pool completely off the grid with no AC backup at all has never been done on a commercial level anywhere. In fact, this is the second one in the world. (The other one is in Cyprus.)”

Hawaiian Shores solar powered commercial pool
The Hawaiian Shores Community Association was paying roughly $1,000 per month to circulate water in this pool. Today it pays nothing.

Shocking Utility Rates

As with many solar power stories, this one begins with a utility bill. The entire state of Hawaii pays a lot for electricity, and it’s about $0.41 per kWhr on the Big Island. The Hawaiian Shores Community Association was paying roughly $1000/month to run a 10-horse, 3-phase motor. Board president Eileen O’Hara liked the idea of going green and reducing that monthly cost to zero. The critical figure in all such decisions is ROI, which in this case was calculated to be 8 to 9 years.

The payback period was longer than normal due to HSCA’s nonprofit status, which rendered it ineligible for the state and federal income tax credits that are usually applied to solar electric installations. The board felt the case for solar was strong enough, even without these.

With the go-ahead from the association, project engineering began. The HSCA changeover from utility-based power to solar power would be a practical design challenge from the start. For this phase, Tyson Toyama of the engineering firm Okahara and Associates was brought in to figure out exactly how to make Lorentz solar technology achieve what local government demanded.

“We asked him to take a completely different approach to meeting or exceeding the health department’s requirements for water circulation and purification on a public pool,” Moylan says.

Lorentz pumps@Hawaiian Shores solar powered commercial pool
Three Lorentz solar pumps are fed DC electricity from the solar panels next to the pool to drive their high-efficiency brushless motors. A controller on each pump monitors the system and optimizes gpm based on the power available.

Of crucial importance in that effort, and indeed, to the feasibility of the project, was the HSCA pool’s exemption from the usual requirement for commercial pools that water be kept moving at night, when solar pumps grind to a halt.

“This particular pool does not have any lighting, and the association had gotten permission from the health department to turn off its pumps at night. They weren’t running at night, even before we came. So we just kept that same schedule and changed the source of power,” Toyama says.

Still, a six-hour turnover rate during operation was part of the design criteria, and the team needed to satisfy the authorities on that point. To do that while relying on a variable source of power — that is, the amount of light shining down from the heavens — was a rousing challenge.

“Because you’ve got to consider,” Moylan says, “we’re going 100 percent solar with no AC backup, What if it rains — is the pool going to stop pumping?

“We had to get the data to convince them on that point. They’re variable-speed pumps, so they slow down when it rains, but they still turn enough circulation in a six-hour timeframe to meet the health department’s regulations. I think that was probably one of the bigger bumps in the process.”

Early morning hours and cloudy periods were the main problem. The team solved this by upsizing the solar panel array so that even in minimal sunlight conditions, the pumps deliver enough gpm.

The firm is pursuing other solar pump projects on the island, Toyama says, but with the much more common AC supplement. “We’re looking at a pool now, a YWCA, that we wouldn’t run 100 percent solar. It would be connected to the grid to run at night.

“We’re not sure how we would approach it. On the Big Island, they have a system where the excess power you generate from your solar panels during the day is sent back to the grid and, in effect, held for you to use at night. So we might do that.”

Great Expectations

By proving the feasibility of unassisted solar pumping, the HSCA pool serves as a major advance in the industry’s effort to reduce the cost of pool ownership, which is crucial to future growth. The use of clean power is an added benefit that enhances the image of the industry as forward-looking and up-to-date.

“This historic undertaking will lead to a whole new way of looking at solar energy and the many applications required in the transfer and movement of water,” Moylan says. “We eliminated three-phase power on a commercial pool and went completely solar. That is now a possibility. On residential, it’s a piece of cake.”

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

What Does This Project Mean For The Pool Industry?

Michael Moylan, president of Pacific Solar Products:

“For the residential pool industry, this is huge. And the reason why it’s huge is the cost of operating and owning a pool is huge. Especially in the state of Hawaii. To give you an idea of the cost of circulating water, the largest consumer of electricity in the state of Hawaii is the water department, for pumping water. That’s how expensive it is to pump water here.

“If you look at the charts, pumping water is No. 2 in expense for any household after air conditioning. So when you build a pool out here, your bill is typically anywhere from $100 to $200 a month to operate that pool. The impact of being able to circulate your pool without that cost is huge. “That’s really what we’re trying to get across to the public. There’s an alternative to the expensive operation of a pool. You can own a pool, and its cost to operate can be minimal.” 

Oop 113 Aq Web Sm
The equipment room at the HSCA with the pool visible in background.

Oon 113 Aq Web Sm

A peek underneath the photovoltaic array supplying power to the pool.

Sun Powered

An 8.88 kW photovoltaic (PV) display directly operates three high-efficiency Lorentz pumps to circulate the pool water. The pumps can accommodate fluctuations in power occurring with changes in sunlight during the day. The system is warranted for 25 years.

Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library
Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide