The Lakeway Regional Medical Center is in growth mode. Open since 2012, the 106-bed hospital in Lakeway, Texas, has a large cardiology department, is stroke-accredited, and is in the process of earning its trauma designation. It’s become a go-to healthcare destination for local Hill Country communities weary of the longer drive to Austin.
A mile away, the Vibra Rehabilitation Hospital of Lake Travis is growing, too. The 30-bed acute rehab hospital will soon open six more beds, as well as a hyperbaric and wound care center.
Along with their location, these two thriving healthcare businesses have an operational detail in common: They both solved key building system challenges with propane.
Heating and cooking
Lakeway, some say, is like the Beverly Hills of Austin, an affluent community plotted with high-end homes. Located at the edges of Texas Hill Country, near Lake Travis and a number of resorts, it’s home to many healthcare professionals who used to work in Austin, making Lakeway Regional an attractive and nearby facility for their practice.
The hospital was built with growth in mind, says Silas Powell, Lakeway Regional’s director of support services. “When it was laid out, the footprint was set up so it can expand to 300 beds with the addition of a north tower onto our existing facility,” he says. But the infrastructure, including the mechanical systems and kitchen, was put in place to support that growth from the beginning.
The building’s primary heating and cooling are provided by three chillers (along with three cooling towers) and two Templifiers, essentially large heat pump water heaters. The building also required a backup boiler system for when one of the Templifiers was down for service or when the weather was particularly cold. With no natural gas available, propane was an ideal fit to fuel the boiler. “To me, it’s more cost-effective, and it’s a very reliable system to have in place,” Powell says.
Propane also fuels cooking equipment such as stoves and ovens in the hospital’s large commercial kitchen. “In a commercial kitchen, gas is the preferred method of cooking,” Powell says. “It’s also more cost-effective. I don’t know any commercial kitchens I’ve been in that tried doing it on electric.”
The building is LEED Silver certified and earned a challenging 3-star rating in the Austin Energy Green Building program. And while the natural gas main is getting closer to the hospital’s location, Powell says he isn’t likely to make the switch. “Honestly, we’re satisfied enough with just using the propane that I don’t know if it would be worth the hassle of piping and bringing that in,” he says.
Propane boilers for reheat
Hospital codes and licensing requirements often dictate healthcare facilities’ air flow rates, temperature, and humidity specifications. In some buildings, keeping the humidity down requires sophisticated mechanical systems.
In Vibra Rehabilitation Hospital’s reheat system, the mechanical system first chills the air to 52 degrees to remove humidity. Then, to avoid freezing temperatures for the building occupants, reheat coils in the building’s Variable Air Volume (typically known as VAV) boxes reheat the air to a comfortable 70 degrees.
Like Lakeway Regional, Vibra turned to propane boilers to heat the water that runs through the coils. Separate propane boilers also provide the building’s domestic hot water. The heating system is expensive because the boilers must run year-round. But, says Wayne Martin, the hospital’s plant operations director, it’s the best solution available while the hospital waits for the natural gas utility.
“To me, a propane boiler is more cost-effective, and it’s a very reliable system to have in place.”
“They do make electric water heaters,” Martin says, “but the cost of electricity would be even worse.”
Furthermore, Vibra Rehabilitation Hospital can use propane to fuel its kitchen equipment, including a steamer and grill. That’s a benefit for the kitchen staff, Martin says. “They prefer using flame to electric [cooking], just for the efficiency of cooking quickly.”
For construction and design professionals and business owners of all types, knowing the capabilities of propane can help solve operational challenges when natural gas isn’t available. Check out the Virtual Commercial Buildings interactive tool on the Commercial Applications page to see how four other model buildings put propane amenities to profitable use.