Turtle Rock Community Association

Enjoying the Glow of Success:

 

Turtle Rock Community Association, Inc.

by Kathy Danforth

   Turtle Rock Community Association of Sarasota was featured in Florida Community Association Journal's February 2009 issue for their innovative solar-powered street lights. They continue to pioneer an energy-saving and budget-enhancing path that other communities may want to follow.

   When the natural gas bill for the community's 175 street lights was exceeding $75,000 per year, and costs were on the rise, a committee chaired by Tom Bass was formed to investigate the option of solar-powered street lights. Since it was a new type of application, they tested trial installations in the neighborhood before obtaining board approval for the project. Former treasurer and committee member Terry Cooney observes, "There's still not a lot of data for this type of environment, with constant charging during the day and constant battery discharge at night."

   Cooney explains, "We didn't want to pass a special assessment on to the homeowners, so we scheduled a loan payment that exactly equaled the monthly check we would write to the gas company. We recently had the loan burning ceremony after two years and now have a $75,000 savings each year."

   Cooney comments, "This project has done some interesting things for us. It's eliminated the gas smell, carbon dioxide emissions, hurricane dangers, and anything else associated with the gas. It's also allowed us to pass the savings along to help fund our road paving project. Our community is 15 years old and we plan to pave our roads every 20 years so we're looking at a $1,000,000 paving project coming up in a few years. We're going to apply the savings directly to the paving reserve account so again there'll be no increase or a very minimal increase in assessments. In addition we qualified for a Solar Investment Tax Credit of $60,000."

   Though the community did not find any grants available to help fund the project, Bass states, "The economics were overpowering and since the bank was so willing to give us the loan, we did it ourselves."

   Some reticence to change to the solar lighting came from residents who enjoyed the ambiance of the gas lights. "Some people fell in love with the glow of the gas—when you substitute a solar panel and a LED it's a little different," Bass notes. Turtle Rock is currently serving as the test case for early production models of a new generation of gas look-alike lamps that contain high illumination LEDs. "It looks like a gas mantle, and if you didn't know any better you'd swear we have gas lamps on the trial site. That should resolve any ambiance issues."

   "The new lamps don't draw as much on the battery, so we'll probably get another year out of the batteries," Cooney adds. The original batteries are rated for three years, but Cooney says, “We have replaced just a half-dozen batteries so the overall average battery life may be four to five years.” The new bulbs themselves have a projected life of five to ten years, where the current bulbs were rated at 18–24 months.

   Though these new lamps are equivalent in brightness to the old gas lamps, Cooney concedes, "It's never going to be as bright as a street light in a big city—you're never going to read a paper under it. The important thing is that there's enough light for morning dog walkers and children at the bus stop."

   At this point, higher-powered lithium batteries are not practical. "Battery technology hasn't changed in many years," Bass explains. "We've had dialogue with the battery manufacturer, but that technology has a ways to go pricewise. Lithium is significantly more expensive than sealed lead batteries, but we'll get there. I envision the day when a lithium battery will be used, and we'll have greater amperage and wattage and make our lights brighter."

   One unanticipated maintenance item has surfaced from the cooler bug-friendly temperature of the lamps. "With a gas mantle, if a bug is attracted to the glow, it will get burned up," Bass remarks. "Bugs were going into the LED lights and dirtying the glass so more cleaning was necessary. On a cold winter night cuddling up to a nice LED bulb is pretty nice for a bug. We put some special spray on the glass and screens near the openings and that seems to be working well."

   The lights are attracting more than just bugs; Cooney reports, "Students are very interested, and the real estate agents point to us as a leading-edge green community." A number of other associations have inquired about the solar-powered lamps, and Cooney sees them as cost effective for most situations. "There isn't any major scaling issue since the gas company doesn't give volume discounts," he notes. "Each lamp uses one gas therm/day for 365 days a year at about $1.50 per therm. There's probably a two-year payback period for switching to solar."

   The community has also switched from natural gas to geothermal heating for their swimming pool, using lake water as the heat source.  Manager Brian Hartsell reports, "We'll break even within two years, the pool is always at 87 degrees, and a $6000 Solar Investment Tax Credit applies." With a preserve in their backyard, Turtle Rock has been involved in protecting the environment since it was constructed as a part of Palmer Ranch Master Association in 1994. Their 27 lakes are interconnected and filter storm drainage. They also are preparing to remove invasive species on their property, such as Brazilian pepper trees, and replace them with native plants. Hartsell states, "If we did it all at once, it could run up to $250,000 just for the plant removal, not including the replanting." Though that would get it done at once, a phased approach is currently being implemented so the costs can be better absorbed into the budget.

   Hartsell sees the community coming together as a result of a commitment to transparency by the board. "We've had a tremendous number of compliments on how the community is being run," he recalls. Their situation is enhanced by the financial leeway their savings from solar-powered lamps has provided. "We consider ourselves a premier community right now," Hartsell asserts, "but we're not satisfied with where we are—we see ourselves getting better!"