From hot to cold: Ascension St. Vincent’s Chilton uses technology to save energy and maintain hospital air quality – The Clanton Advertiser

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Wellness in September 2022. Copies are available from The Clanton Advertiser’s office, 1109 Seventh Street N in Clanton.


Ohen residents come to Ascension St. Vincent’s Chilton for an appointment or for a health emergency, they see the staff and medical equipment that makes care available.

What they can’t see is all the technology and energy efficiency measures put in place to ensure the building is cost-effectively heated and cooled and the air in patient rooms does not never becomes stale.

Planning for optimal efficiency and air quality began with construction choices.

With a background in power plant management, Chilton County Healthcare Authority board member Robert Threlkeld worked with architect Russ Realmuto of Birchfield Penuel & Associates and Spire representative Steve Roberson on the parts project energy.

The goal was to incorporate components that made the building “as energy efficient as possible…that keeps it as healthy as possible,” Threlkeld said.

These efforts have reduced energy costs related to the operation of the building, while contributing to the sustainability and longevity of the hospital.

“Reducing your energy costs, maintaining that reliability affects your bottom line” in a positive way, Threlkeld said.


Two natural gas-powered microturbines have been incorporated as a component. Threlkeld said they were basically small jet engines. Roberson said the use of microturbines is new to Alabama and “contributes greatly to the overall resiliency and efficiency of the hospital.”

It reduces the dependence on traditional electricity for the hospital, since each of the

microturbines has a generator creating up to 65 KW of power each “which is fed back into the hospital’s electrical system”.

“Traditionally in most hospitals it’s health and safety code, you have to be able to maintain certain things for your occupancy spaces and natural gas has a reputation for being very, very reliable” , Roberson said.

He said natural gas easily meets large heating, cooking and water heating demands, such as those at Ascension St. Vincent’s Chilton.

Besides the microturbines, the boilers, one of the coolers, the humidifiers, the kitchen equipment and a steam generator used for sterilization all run on natural gas.

To protect against power outages, the hospital has a backup power line to the building and a backup diesel generator.

If the electricity goes out, microturbines are used to run things that may not be essential to maintaining patient care, but are still important to have. A diesel generator would be used to power essential equipment.

“By achieving all this energy efficiency, we’re reducing the need for a diesel generator (compared to a similarly sized hospital),” Threkeld said.

The heat produced by the microturbines as they generate power is channeled into a vacuum where it is cooled to cool water to be used for the chilled beams that cool each of the rooms, the facility manager said, Jeff Roberts.


The ventilation system used for the hospital draws all of its air from outside, ensuring that fresh air is always circulating in the rooms.

Roberson said using the outside air “brings in oxygen…it moves all kinds of harmful bacteria, viruses, etc. outside.”

Realmuto said “this hospital was much better set up than most for the pandemic” because the air system used made it easier to create isolation rooms.

Roberts said the rate at which the air circulates is equivalent to one piece of totally new air every 15 minutes.

Energy recovery units are used to reduce the amount of energy needed to cool incoming air, Roberts said.

As outside air is drawn into the system, it is filtered and passed under a plate which has been cooled by the exhaust air flowing over and out of the system. As incoming air passes under the cooled plate, it cools by up to 10 degrees, Roberts said.

The air conditioning system uses specialized radiators, called chilled beams, which use chilled water to create cold air. Instead of blowing cool air through a large duct, a six-inch duct is used to push air into the chilled beam, Threlkeld said.

The system has only one exhaust.

The use of this system allowed the infrastructure to take up less space between floors, thus reducing construction costs as well as the height of the building.

“We paid for the (chilled beam) system by reducing the distance between the concrete and steel floors,” Threlkeld said.

The thermostats in each room are programmable and have sensors to keep the temperature in the room comfortable at all times.

“It does it as a natural process, where in your home you’ll feel the air moving, you won’t feel it on these,” Roberts said. “It allows it (the air)… to cascade down at a slower rate, so you don’t get this cold air blowing on you and stuff like that.”

Threlkeld said systems with large air ducts lose 30% efficiency.

Condensation created in the system is captured and used in the system’s cooling tower “to rid the absorption chiller of heat,” Roberts said.

This eliminates the need to pay water for the cooling tower.

Realmuto said a cooling tower “is the most efficient way” to lower the temperature.

An additional chiller is seen with the cooling tower in the background.


Maintaining energy efficiency has continued to be a priority during the hospital’s nearly six years of operation.

“We’re looking for opportunities to make sure we’re maximizing savings across all aspects of the ministry, and energy savings is definitely one of them,” said hospital administrator Shanon Hamilton.

This also includes continuous insulation, LED lighting throughout the facility with occupancy sensors to turn lights off and timers to dim lights in parking lots and lobbies.

“LED lights use one-third the power of a fluorescent light,” Threkeld said. “So it’s not just less power, it’s less radiant heat, less maintenance.”

Variable frequency drives allow motors in pumps and air handlers to be tuned to run at less than 100% capacity based on demand, Threkeld said.


While operating the hospital’s sophisticated energy system, the team discovered another way to maximize efficiency.

An upgrade project is underway to make changes so that the heat produced by the microturbines is not just used to create chilled water

vacuum, but also to produce hot water.

This hot water can be used to heat the building and replace some of the other functions currently performed by the hospital’s boilers, Roberts said.

“During the summer, I doubt we’ll even use the boiler, once you get that upgrade,” Roberts said. “…Then during the winter months I guess we will reduce our load by 40%”

Threlkeld said the project will pay for itself through cost savings on natural gas.


Maintaining focus on the proper management of energy resources has continued in the day-to-day operations of the hospital, such as collecting used cooking oil from the kitchen to send it to a facility that uses it as fuel.

“We will always continue to evaluate opportunities that we can incorporate into our operations to help us become more efficient, so that we can reduce the overall cost of running the hospital, but also to provide resources to our community,” Hamilton said.

In the future, this could include researching the possibility of having an electric vehicle charging station.

Ascension St. Vincent’s Chilton is seeking recognition from the Department of Energy through its Technical Assistance Partnership.

Roberson said the partnership is with universities across the country focused on energy efficiency.

Ascension St. Vincent’s Chilton wants to be a model for what can be accomplished in the South East.