Gardens gets greener

The Gardens Hotel at 526 Angela St. in Key West has converted the hot water system in one of its buildings to run off solar energy as yet another step in an overall green initiative.

The Gardens was the first hotel in the Keys to be designated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as a Green Lodging, and the move to solar-heated water continues the Gardens' green philosophy.

"We're the Gardens. We're a natural environment," General Manager Cindy DeRocher said.

Stock Island company Eco-Nomic Solutions oversaw the project and plumber Shawn Hudgins did the contracting work.

In a nutshell, the system pipes water from a tank to two 4-foot-by-8-foot rooftop panels, where the water circulates and absorbs energy from the sun. The heated water is then used for sinks, showers and washing machines.

"Your typical hot water usage in a home is 20 to 30 percent of your electric bill every month. You can eliminate 60 to 50 percent of that cost by using solar hot water," Eco-Nomic Solutions owners Jedde Regante said. "You're reducing your carbon footprint, as well."

A typical household system costs between $3,500 and $5,000 to install.

The first steps for going green at the Gardens were to replace all of the standard light bulbs with longer-lasting, more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs and aggressively pursue a recycling program. Staff also closely monitored the temperatures in vacant guest rooms to reduce energy consumption.

In the first year, tracked from June 2007 to June 2008, DeRocher said the Gardens reduced its water use by 2 percent, energy consumption by 11 percent and waste stream by 30 percent.

DeRocher said it just came down to "looking at the really simple things to do" to promote environmental welfare.

Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, works with DEP to encourage member properties to pursue the green certification, and she says, "The response, especially down here, has been overwhelming."

"People come to the Florida Keys for lots of reasons," Weinhofer said, "but the environment isn't lost on anyone."

Weinhofer said guests at green lodgings are able to see the simplicity and effectiveness of sustainable practices and take those ideas home. "The bottom line is everyone of us can make a difference."

The two new solar panels at the Gardens use thermal energy to heat water, which is, in turn, piped for use in the hotel's laundry room, the poolside bar and three guest rooms.

Although the system went in just last week and energy savings have not shown up on the utility bill yet, "I'm excited," DeRocher said. "I definitely think it's a step in the right direction."

DeRocher credits owner Kate Miano with making the investment in solar. "We have to start somewhere using technology that will lead to a more sustainable future," she said. Besides, "Down here in the Keys, we definitely have to use the sun."