by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s latest venture in energy-saving technology will make a small step toward a greener planet – but may have a much more profound impact on at least one student’s future.

Bethel maintenance and technology staff, under the management of Les Goerzen, director of facilities and technology, continue to use their own expertise, willingness to research and ability to improvise to find small, affordable ways to cut energy usage.

The latest, launched at the beginning of this month, was installation of solar collectors on the roof of Voth residence hall.

The installation consists of four vacuum tube-style collectors with 30 tubes per collector. The collectors are intended to provide enough energy to heat “water for domestic use” to serve the apartment of the resident director in Voth Hall. Previously, Voth’s large boilers would have had to run to heat water for showers, dishwashing or laundry just for the apartment.

Under the supervision of Bethel maintenance worker Roger Reimer, Eric Goering, senior natural sciences major from McPherson, began last January to assemble the frames for the solar collectors. The task was part of his self-designed interterm class, which he describes as “an energy conservation apprenticeship.”

In addition to the frame assembly, Goering did other prep work for the solar heating system. He worked with Bethel’s master plumber, Fred Unruh, on the plumbing needed for the collectors to heat the water and for the water to be delivered. Goering also installed and programmed energy management equipment in the college maintenance shop as part of his January class work.

Another aspect of Goering’s “apprenticeship” was some research that will lead to the next small energy-saving project. “I live in one of the mods in Warkentin Court and my bed is against one of the outside walls,” he says. “In the winter, I can feel the 10-degrees-colder air washing over me.”

So he proposed insulating Warkentin by injecting foam into the block walls, figuring out how it could be done and getting bids. Unfortunately, Bethel can’t afford to do all 22 mods at once, but will be insulating the walls of eight of them this summer – including Goering’s.

In mid-April, Goering and several other students spent Service Day mounting the solar collector frames on Voth Hall’s roof. Goering and Reimer finished installing and insulating the collectors in the last couple of weeks.

The design for the collectors, Reimer says, originated when, “two summers ago, we took one of [former faculty member] Emerson Wiens’ solar collectors, built in a manufacturing technology class in the ’70s, and hooked it up to Voth to see what it would do. It wasn’t big enough.”

Reimer then called Access Energy of Newton to come out and give a bid for installing solar collectors on Voth Hall. The price was out of Bethel’s range – so instead, the college bought the 120 collectors through Access.

Then, “Adam Akers [technology staff person], Eric and I designed the operation – the plumbing, the interface to the building. We had the tanks and pumps in the building already – we integrated the collectors into our existing mechanical and computer control systems.”

I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t,” Goering says, “and conceptually how to make things work and make them financially feasible. I learned about integrating what you have – to think through what you have and what you need, and apply [your own expertise] rather than buying the [commercial installation].”

The price of collectors, tanks and pumps came to about $8,500, a fraction of what commercial installation would have cost, Reimer says.

“‘Appropriate’ technology means it leads to what you’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “It pays off because you’re spending what you can afford.

“We have to use alternative energy sources in economically appropriate ways,” he continues. “We have to make economic sense. Plus, this provided an educational opportunity for a student.”

Goering, who has worked for three years with audio-visual and information technology staff Akers and Nathan Eigsti, as well as with maintenance, notes that he had few concrete ideas about what he’d do with a college education when he came to Bethel. “But now I’ve seen and done a lot of applicable, hands-on stuff,” he says.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see