Let There Be Light: Solar Energy at Ramah Outdoor Adventure
By Nathaniel Eisen
In the legend of Hannukah, the Jewish people (with divine intercession) found a way to make one traditional day’s allotment of a non-renewable resource last for eight days. Ramah Outdoor Adventure at Ramah in the Rockies, a Jewish outdoors camp located in Sedalia, CO, tries to do the same with respect to its energy, gas and water usage.
The camp opened in 2010 on the site of a former girl-scout camp. The site was scouted by Don Skupsky, a Denver lawyer, who has been involved in every aspect of developing the property and remains president of the board of Ramah in the Rockies, the organization that runs the site. According to Skupsky, environmental impact was a consideration from the beginning of the planning process. “We thought, each time we did something, about the materials and their impact,” Skupsky said.
Instead of cabins for staff and campers, the camp has built tent platforms with removable canvas structures, allowing for future changes with minimal waste of materials or impact on the environment. These tents have no electricity, relying instead on ambient light during the day, and flashlights at night.
Passive lighting is similarly used during the day in the dining tent, bathroom, outhouses and shower houses, though all now have lighting that turns on at night.
Most of the lights around camp are solar powered. All the path lighting on paths and roads around camp consists of individual solar powered lanterns and floodlights. Similarly, the guest housing, outhouses and bouldering wall all use small, solar-powered LED lights.
The most innovative feature of Ramah in the Rockies’ solar array is the hot water heater for the showers. The system was installed in 2012 in order to meet the peak demand for hot water on Friday afternoons, which totaled up to 1500 gallons over a 3-hour period as over 200 people prepared for the Jewish Sabbath. Skupsky researched commercial solar water heaters, and discovered that the costs were prohibitive.
So Skupsky, his son Ben, and the camp’s plumber, Shane Hyde from Conifer Plumbing, came up with a system of their own. They purchased two black 500-gallon bladders, similar to those used by the military to transport water, which passively heat the water they hold. They placed these bladders in a “hot box,” which has a corrugated plastic roof that allows in 90% of sunlight and traps heat. The box faces south at a 24-degree angle, which maximizes the amount of sunlight gathered in July, the month with the most days at camp. Mirrors inside reflect sunlight onto the bladders, further increasing water temperature.
In 2013, the system heated water to 95-98 degrees on sunny days in June. It is not entirely energy independent—Skupsky added a pump to increase water pressure, and a tankless propane heater to heat water up to 104 degrees, Fahrenheit. However, considering that the well water comes out of the ground at around 45 degrees, the gas and electricity savings are substantial.
The showers are also designed to conserve water. They are on a timer, which shuts off after 45 seconds. While users can press the button any number of times they want, the timers have proven to reduce the time users actually spend in the shower, and prevent water waste from campers forgetting to turn them off.
Often times the environmentally sustainable lines up with the economical. One example, according to Skupsky, is the path lighting—digging trenches for the wires to light the paths on the sprawling campus would have cost much more than the solar lanterns. However, sometimes the two are opposed. A commercial solar water heater could heat up water to 104 degrees without relying on any propane, but it would have cost about three times as much as the present system the Skupskys and Hyde improvised.
The camp’s managers thus must always balance their environmental commitments with budget constraints. “There are some people who’ve talked about a ‘green’ camp,” said Skupsky. “Our goal is to be environmentally responsible and sustainable. We can’t afford 100% green.”
Ramah in the Rockies’ approach is therefore more moderate than that of the zealous Maccabees. It works within its means, using innovative approaches, to reduce its impact on the environment. Now that’s something to emulate.