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Swiftmud water restrictions require many buildings to raise thermostats to 78 degrees

Brown lawns, dirty cars, dried-up fountains. And now this: Virtually all public buildings are about to get a few degrees warmer.

Regulators want shopping malls, schools, department stores, government buildings — any structure that uses water cooling towers for air conditioning — to turn the thermostat up to 78 degrees or higher.

The rule is among the more pervasive, and confusing, of several critical water restrictions that begin today.

Using the towers less will save water. But even regulators at Swiftmud, the regional water authority, aren't certain how much. And local water cops aren't sure how they're going to enforce it.

"We've never done this before," said John Parks, a manager for St. Petersburg Water Resources. "I assume we'll bring a thermometer into buildings and take the temperature. And if they are over 78 degrees, do we give them a water citation? I'm just not sure what Swiftmud's expectations are."

While Swiftmud is focusing on lawn watering and residential water use, building managers are expected to follow the 78-degree rule, said Robin Felix, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Here's the theory behind the rule.

As water enters a cooling tower, warm water is sucked out, causing a cooling process. As that warm water evaporates, it leaves behind a concentration of hard minerals that build up and interfere with the tower's operation. More water — typically 10,000 to 20,000 gallons a day — is used to flush minerals out of the system.

Keeping the thermostat higher in large buildings means the water cooling towers will operate less, requiring less water.

"It's hard to estimate what the exact savings will be," Felix said.

Those who use water cooling towers are trying to comply. Government buildings, for example, are the most obvious candidates for the warmer workplace.

"We're currently adjusting our (utilities) building to run at 78 degrees," said Allen Bollenbacher, Pinellas County's director of maintenance. "It's not a simple thing to do."

Tara Martin, a spokeswoman for the Citrus Park mall, said the mall will be raised to 78 degrees to comply with Swiftmud's restrictions. She declined to comment on how it would affect customers or businesses.

Hillsborough County schools raised their thermostat levels from 74 to 76 last year, a $1.5 million savings that prompted complaints from uncomfortable kids and teachers.

About a dozen schools use water cooling towers, and raising them two more degrees is going to be tough, said schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

Swiftmud will make some exception to the 78-degree rule.

Morgues and hospitals get a pass. So do jails, Felix said, because jail guards "like to keep them cool to keep inmates calmer."

Emily Nipps can be reached at or (727) 893-8452.

fast facts

78-degree rule

Government facilities, common areas in malls, lobbies of multi-tenant office buildings and similar public spaces using cooling towers or other water-based cooling must keep the temperature at or above 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are exemptions for health and safety, such as hospital facilities.

Swiftmud water restrictions require many buildings to raise thermostats to 78 degrees 04/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 11:48am]
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