Among the ancient trees of the Willamette National Forest sits Breitenbush Hot Springs resort. Sixty-five miles from the nearest large city, it’s an inviting place that hosts thousands of visitors who come to soak in the hot springs, enjoy organic food, improve their lives, and just relax. Feeding souls requires energy, and the systems that electrify and warm the 100-plus buildings of the community rely on the flowing water of the Breitenbush River and the natural hot springs below the surface of the community’s landscape.
The land that is now Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat & Conference Center was visited by Hudson Bay fur trappers in the mid-1800s, first homesteaded in 1904, and later developed as a wilderness health spa. The property changed hands a number of times until 1972, when after two devastating floods, the business was closed. In 1977, ecopreneur Alex Beamer bought the land and began building an intentional community to operate a retreat and conference center at the hot springs site.
Breitenbush has grown to include a full-time community of about 60 people who occupy approximately three dozen dwellings on the north side of the river. On the south side of the river, the lodge and 42 guest cabins provide accommodations for up to 135 visitors, and the facility hosts more than 100 workshops each year, including natural healing, dance, personal growth, and more.
Operating this extensive facility requires a significant amount of electricity. Several miles off-grid, Breitenbush had to figure out how to make their own. Fortunately, this was easy—the Breitenbush River runs through their 154 acres.
A very small portion of the fast-flowing river is diverted through a sophisticated intake system, feeding about 35 cubic feet per second (15,700 gpm) into a 42-inch-diameter penstock. The high-density polyethylene (HDPE) penstock runs about 800 feet, and drops 19 feet to the turbine to develop about 8 psi. A recent upgrade of the intake included a fish diversion, level sensors and controls, active screen cleaning, and automated gates.
The turbine is a 22-inch Francis that was originally installed in 1929. It’s a James Leffel & Co. “Samson,” which was built in Springfield, Ohio, sometime between 1895 and 1927. This model was originally designed for mechanical power in mills, but it’s not uncommon for them to be used for electricity production. The runner blades are carbon steel, and are cast into an iron hub. In its several decades of operation, the Breitenbush runner has never been rebuilt, while the turbine’s wicket gates (that control the flow to the runner) were last rebuilt in 1980. The turbine rides on two wooden bearings, and this isn’t just any wood. It’s Lignum vitae—the heartwood of the ironwood tree—the hardest and densest of all woods. The wood contains natural lubricating oils, and the bearings in the Breitenbush turbine typically last three to five years.
The turbine shaft spins at about 312 rpm, and is belted up to 1,800 rpm to drive a 45 kW, three-phase, 208 VAC generator. This output is then stepped up to 480 VAC for distribution in the community.
In normal water conditions, generator output is between 40 and 42 kW. Because this is an off-grid system with no batteries, the full load of the community needs to stay below this peak output or the diesel generator will start. Since the demand generally is lower than the energy supply, this means that the controls are always diverting or “dumping” a portion of the energy at any given time, and the system must include capability to dump all of the production in times when demand is very low. A Thomsen & Howe load-control governor diverts surplus energy to 44 kW of heating elements submerged in a 50-gallon stainless tank with river water constantly running through it to take the heat away. Plans are underway to put this diversion energy to use in a hydronic heating system in the community’s shop building.
A 40 kW diesel generator backs up the hydro system during times of high usage, low flow, maintenance, or emergency. But the cost to operate it is more than $200 a day, so it is something the system operators try to avoid. Occasionally, operators will turn off the resident community side’s electricity (or have rolling blackouts, turning off half at a time) to maintain electricity to guest facilities. An added benefit after a blackout is that residents become far more conservative with electricity use. To put Breitenbush’s power in perspective, consider that the average new home built today is required to have a 200-amp electrical service panel. Such a home is capable of using 48,000 watts. This means that although the Breitenbush hydro system is not capable of maxing out the average house panel, it can serve 200 people in more than 100 buildings, providing electricity for domestic water pumps, irrigation, and septic and geothermal heating pumps, plus computers, a commercial kitchen, and a shop facility.
Conservation and efficiency play a crucial role in making these systems work for the community. All lighting is compact fluorescent, and appliances are carefully screened before their purchase to make sure that efficiency is high. Residents and guests are not permitted to have toasters, hair dryers, irons, or electric heaters. The following is a quote from the community electrical guidelines, used to encourage a high level of electrical literacy and awareness:
Please be aware of the power draw of any appliance you own. A watt-meter to measure power draw is available from the Systems Team. If you have questions about any specific appliance, please check with Systems. New community members will be asked to meet with someone from Systems to check their electrical appliances. Any new appliances acquired by existing members must also be approved by Systems.
The community facilities include multiple large pumps for geothermal, domestic water, and the septic systems—but the hydro controls have the ability to shed these loads during periods of high demand. This load-control system is generally seamless and automatic, though the system operators are able to manage it manually and can see at any moment how much energy is going to facility loads and to the diversion load.
This wasn’t always so: Early energy management came in the form of systems operators, who would walk through the community, turning off lights. And at times of low water, or during the autumn rains, it was not uncommon for community members to manually rake debris from the trash rack in two-hour shifts to increase flow into the system and thus avoid diesel generator use. Today, user education and electronic control has taken over, and the system normally runs very well within its capacity.
Nevertheless, occasionally the diesel generator automatically fires up to cover excess usage, which triggers alarms to the operators’ radios. Once a month, the operators test the generator’s auto-transfer system to make sure it’s ready to go.
In the late 1970s, the community drilled wells to tap the heat deep in the earth for warming their buildings. At present, they are using two wells—one 500 feet deep and the other 700 feet deep. If the hot water were used directly, the mineral content would precipitate, scale, and plug the interiors of the pipes in a short time. So fresh water is circulated through down-hole, closed-loop heat exchangers, gaining 20°F to 30°F as it passes down into the geothermal well and returns. Typical outlet water temperatures are 200°F to 210°F, and return temperatures are 180°F to 190°F. This water heats all the buildings on site, plus the hot tubs. (The natural hot spring pools use surface spring water.)
Two three-phase, 480 V, 3 hp pumps run this system in winter, with only one needed in summer. Cabins and other community buildings use old-fashioned cast-iron radiators, with valves on each radiator to let residents and guests control the heat. The radiators also come in handy for drying clothes and warming toes.
Because of the wide area serviced by the system, it’s inevitable that the buildings closer to the wells have more heat available. There is discussion about developing two more existing wells to increase the heat capability for certain parts of the property. The existing wells have roughly a 5 million Btu per hour capacity, while the community is only using about 2 million Btu per hour at most.
Breitenbush Hot Springs is open year-round, and this area can experience several feet of snow during the wintertime—so plentiful, renewable heat is a boon to residents and guests alike.
Breitenbush’s efforts toward sustainability go well beyond energy. The many buildings take plenty of care to help them withstand guest use and seasonal changes. In all construction and maintenance, the community tries to use recycled materials as much as possible. They frequently harvest trees that fall in their forests, and either mill them into lumber or use them as natural posts and beams.
Composting is a way of life in the community, with centralized composting tanks that are scientifically managed to produce compost quickly. The composting system is one of many projects of the Breitenbush Eco Fund, a nonprofit associated with the community that works to spread the lessons learned at Breitenbush to the outside community.
The resident side of the Breitenbush property includes a large, heavily used community garden. The future may hold development of agriculture for guests as well, since community members are concerned about the impact of their business, and believe strongly in using local resources and building a sustainable example.
Residents are intensely aware of their energy use and impact. They understand that being directly responsible for their energy actions is not necessarily the easy way, but it’s worthwhile work. They are conscious of conservation and efficiency. And this awareness extends to how they care for the property they steward, how they care for their bodies, hearts, and minds, and how they care for the thousands of guests who come and go each year.
Breitenbush’s influence extends far beyond its acreage, inspiring its thousands of visitors who return home with more knowledge of how to live balanced lives. They may not be blessed at home with the hot and cold running water that fuels Breitenbush’s energy scene, but with the principles they see in action in their brief stays, guests can seek out and shepherd the resources on their own stomping grounds, and learn to use them more wisely.
Ian Woofenden appreciates the hot springs and warm personal connections made at Breitenbush Hot Springs.
Breitenbush Hot Springs • www.breitenbush.com