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Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge goes green from the inside out, retro-fitting the existing building

Solar panels mounted on the building produce enough energy to heat the building and the floor water heat. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham1 / 6
The lighting in the Tamarac Refuge visitor’s center and headquarters building has been upgraded to LED. Though the building was re-insulated, the original walls and ceiling were put back in place after the work was done. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham2 / 6
An addition to the building houses a conference room on the main level. Upstairs is the geothermal equipment. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham3 / 6
Solar panels mounted on the building produce enough energy to heat the building and the floor water heat. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham4 / 6
The geothermal equipment, loop up and down throughout the upstairs of the building addition. It takes air from the earth, which is 40- 50 degrees, versus outside air at 20 below in the winter and uses it to heat the building. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham5 / 6
Refuge employee Janice Bengtson and Friends of Tamarac President Ron Jenson continue to rearrange shelves, getting all the refuge’s storage from around the building into one location. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham6 / 6

Though it may not look much different from the outside, or the inside for that matter, dig a little deeper and you’ll find major renovations at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center and Headquarters.

“Literally, most of it is behind the scenes, behind the walls,” Tamarac Visitor Service Director Kelly Blackledge said. “Most of (the project) was retro-fitting what we had.”

From floor to ceiling, and everything in between, Tamarac has gone green, and the refuge is hosting a grand re-opening and open house Sunday to invite the public to come take a look.

“We’re really excited about showcasing the project to the public during this weekend’s event and knowing that the refuge plays a role in contributing to the sustainability of natural resources,” Tamarac Refuge Manager Neil Powers said.

Becoming green

It wasn’t just a matter of re-insulating and putting in new windows and solar panels when it came to being green with the refuge project. Though all that was done, too.

It was about reusing what was being taken down to install the geothermal heating and spray foam insulation, too. For instance, the ceiling was taken down, insulated and then put back up.

The walls were taken down, work behind them completed and then the wood put back in place.

Lighting was replaced though and changed to LED lighting. They are also on a sensor to go off when there is no activity for a period of time, and a dimmer switch so that when the sunlight is radiating the room, the lights are dimmer, using less energy.

The windows and doors were replaced because of the energy inefficiency.

“On homes, those are the first things that make the biggest impact on energy,” Blackledge said. “At first glance, you may not notice (different windows and doors), but we notice with the drafts.”

The building was constructed in 1980, and is now updated for many years to come.

“It’s destined to last many, many years,” she said.

The $2 million project included a small addition to the northeast corner of the building, which now houses a couple office spaces downstairs and the geothermal equipment upstairs. Blackledge said the space was needed to house the equipment because it wouldn’t have fit anywhere else in the existing building.

The offices for volunteers and Friends of the Refuge workers, a break room and a conference room are on the main level and the equipment upstairs so an elevator wasn’t required for access.

Ground heat is 40 to 50 degrees, so the equipment takes the heat from the ground and pumps it through the air exchange system, heating it to 70 degrees for room temperature. That saves energy from heating the outside air at 20 below zero to 70 degrees.

“It produces enough energy to heat two average houses,” Blackledge said.

The building is also run on solar energy, one unit to heat the water that warms the floors and one that warms the building.

After the winter Minnesota has experienced this year, one may think there isn’t enough sun to gather any solar energy. Not true.

According to Jason Edens, director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Minnesota has 92 percent of the solar resource of Miami, Fla., and the same solar resource as Houston, Texas.

Minnesota is also the fastest growing solar market in the nation and has one of the nation’s most progressive incentive systems. Blackledge said the refuge saved $10,000 in incentives with the project.

“The solar part is really exciting,” she said. “I like solar because it’s an inexhaustible energy source that’s pollution free.”

The Energy Independence and Security Act requires that all federal buildings, or major renovations to existing buildings, meet a fossil fuel generated consumption reduction by certain percentages up until 100 percent by 2030. Tamarac is now 100 percent fossil fuel free with this project.

Upstairs with the geothermal equipment, there is also a ventilation system because the building is so air tight now, there needs to be air circulation. It runs off a carbon dioxide sensor, so it kicks on when needed.

“So, if we have a big group in the theater, it will kick on,” Blackledge said.

The restrooms are now more accessible, and there was asbestos in the building that’s now been removed.

“In addition to taking advantage of new energy saving technologies like LED lighting, the refuge was able to address long overdue facility upgrades including accessibility improvements and the removal of environmental work hazards like asbestos,” Powers said.

With the attention on everything from geothermal heating to the fabric on the chairs — “it’s really made us think about every purchase we make” — the energy level rating is silver for the building. The building is very low maintenance, and now that the staff has been settled in for a few months, everything is ready to be showcased.

“We spent the first month and a half tweaking,” Blackledge said. “Everything is running smoothly now.”

“Improving our energy efficiency will help us reduce our overall energy footprint and tap into renewable energy resources like geothermal and solar help to reduce impacts to wildlife and habitats on the broader scale,” Powers said.

Sunday open house

The refuge is hosting a grand re-opening and open house Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

There will be building tours every hour on the half hour (12:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30) to see the new equipment that draws energy from the earth and sun to heat the building.

There will be a presentation from Jason Edens, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance and MN Renewable Energy Society, at 2 p.m. about the solar energy.

“People can learn how to take this massive concept to their homes,” Blackledge said.

And the movie “Climate Change: Wildlife and Wildlands” will be shown throughout the afternoon.

The gift shop will be open as well.

Tamarac Refuge Visitor Center is located nine miles north of Highway 34 at the junction of County Highways 29 and 26. For more information, contact the refuge at 218-847-2641.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter @PippiMayfield.