Combining Tradition and Technology
October 26, 2023 | By Dan Vastyan
Hutterite Colony in northern Alberta embraces modern hydronics for efficiency and effectiveness.
Hutterites are a branch of Anabaptists, who, like the Amish and Mennonites, trace their North American roots to Europe’s Radical Reformation of the 16th century.
Hutterites have at least two major distinctions from Amish and Mennonites. They live and work in colonies, which function as a large commercial organization. Also, the first Amish and Mennonites in North America settled in the Mid-Atlantic, due the region’s climate, which resembled their homeland in central Europe.
In contrast, when most Hutterites fled Germany and Austria, they first migrated to Eastern Europe before emigrating to North America some 100 years later. They’d grown accustomed to colder climates and searched for similar conditions after crossing the Atlantic. Today, almost all Hutterites live in Western Canada and the upper Great Plains of the U.S.
Hutterite colonies in Canada generally operate large-scale farming operations. Members, many of whom have mechanical backgrounds, perform their own work and value self-sufficiency, whether that be food production, machinery maintenance or the building trades. Whatever a member’s specialty, rest assured that they’re meticulous, disciplined, trade professionals.
Not typical customers
“While Hutterites lead simple lives by choice, it would be a mistake to label their colonies and farming operations as ‘simple’,” says Braden Davie, technical sales representative at AltaTech Agencies in Edmonton.
“In truth, these are sophisticated commercial enterprises that are managed in great detail. While some may assume these colonies are bound to the past, Hutterite communities have their sights firmly set on the future.”
Over the years, Davie and Rob Cox, AltaTech’s owner, have developed a reputation among Alberta’s Hutterite community for providing hydronic insight, concepts, and leading technology. The rep firm, also with a location in Calgary, has been in business since 2005, with an emphasis on plumbing and hydronics.
Another company that’s forged a solid relationship with the Hutterite colonies in Alberta is Mulder Plumbing and Heating. The six-person company in Lethbridge specializes in hydronic troubleshooting and design.
“Our involvement with the Hutterite colonies began several years ago, when we were brought in to diagnose some issues they were having at one of their locations,” says Steve Mulder, company owner.
“These colonies have a lot of skilled manpower, so we work with them as much as they’d like us to, generally for design and technical assistance.”
“Hydronic heat is a key staple for these Hutterite communities,” explains Cox. “The colonies in Canada aggressively embraced hydronics when legislation forced them to phase out their central coal plants that used to be the focal point of their communities.”
“We’re glad to have AltaTech in central and Western Canada,” says Sean Giberson, Canadian sales manager, wholesale products, at Taco Comfort Solutions. “They excel at dealing with the Hutterite colonies, and they have learned that it’s not business as usual that most of us have grown accustomed to. Hutterite community members set high expectations and are meticulous and exacting in what they do. Once all their questions have been answered, you can count on a refreshing handshake to seal the deal; demonstrating their sincere belief in the word ‘integrity’.”
Leadership at the new, 50,000-acre Deep Creek Farms colony, near Athabasca, located 145 km north of Edmonton, contacted AltaTech and Mulder Plumbing & Heating to discuss several planned construction projects. They were building a new farm equipment shop and also expanding housing for members.
Alberta winters are hard on expensive state-of-the-art agricultural equipment if not properly maintained, so the colony began building a new 29,000 sq.ft. shop with offices and storage space.
Adjacent to that facility, a 12,000 sq. ft. wash bay will also provide the means to keep heavy equipment clean.
Deep Creek Farms planned to build the facilities themselves, but they relied on AltaTech and Mulder for the most technical aspects of the project.
AltaTech made suggestions, provided system concepts, and sourced equipment. While Mulder’s design work included sizing all portions of the systems and creating drawings, in addition to completing some of the most technical installation and commissioning.
The main goal for the heating system – to be installed by the colony’s plumbing team – was that it be robust, long-lived and efficient. This included extensive in-slab heating and hot water production for the wash bay.
“One unique element considered was ensuring that the system can overcome the heat lost to the giant trucks and tractors that come in and out of this shop all winter long,” says Davie. “As these giant blocks of frigid steel machinery act as heat sinks/vacuums every time they get parked inside, we still needed to ensure comfort could be maintained for the users.
“Basically, Mulder confirmed that the boiler plant would be capable of matching the heat load for the facilities plus the additional load of the cold equipment,” he adds. “Because these are modulating systems, we can oversize without concern of short cycling. We also had conversations about how often they’re moving equipment in and out.”
Specific needs, specific pumps
The equipment maintenance bays, offices and storage areas are heated exclusively by 10 zones of in-slab radiant operating on outdoor reset. Two additional radiant zones are dedicated to the large wash bay.
In the main mechanical room, four rack-mounted 500,000 Btu/h Viessmann condensing boilers provide all the heat and hot water needed for the facilities.
Each boiler is circulated to the primary loop by a Taco VR3452 ECM circulator. This pump model is also used to circulate all 12 in-floor zones.
Rather than using a hot water storage to provide adequate volume to the wash bay, stainless steel, plate-and-frame heat exchangers separate the closed boiler loop from the well water used in the wash bays.
“Taco VR3452 circulators were used for the ability to dial in a specific flow rate, which is a great benefit in a cascaded boiler system like this,” explains Davie. “In this manner, we can ensure that all the boilers are seeing the same flow rate and firing at the same input.”
In addition to the large ECM circulators, Taco 0018e circulators were used for zoning. Because this circulator is Bluetooth-programmable, it allowed AltaTech and Mulder to fine-tune the desired flow rate for each radiant zone via the circulator’s mobile app.
Adjacent to the shop is a slaughterhouse which provides the community with a place to render all of its own meat, whether for consumption on the property or for sale.
This facility uses two of the same condensing boilers, though slightly lower in capacity and wall mounted, which supply comfort heating as well as heat for processing/sanitizing.
A dual-coil, 120-gallon indirect tank supplies the process water, and the installers roughed in for a second tank to be installed later if needed.
In addition to the space heat zoning in the slab, there is a slab warming zone under the large walk-in freezer. This zone, which operates via a slab sensor, is used during the summer to prohibit frost infiltration of the slab. Running this zone during the warm summer months guards against damage to the slab below the walk-in freezer.
The systems in both buildings use fused polypropylene pipe for all near-boiler and mechanical piping, and each loop has isolation valves for simple service. In most instances, circulators are wall-mounted remotely, instead of inside the mechanical room.
Once finished, each Hutterite community will accommodate up to about 100 residents. Both AltaTech and Mulder are working with the colony on the residential side of the project. They’re in the process of designing heating systems for the housing complex, which include multi-unit four-plex homes, each 8,000 sq. ft. building with its own boiler. In-floor heat and hydronic coils are both used to heat the living spaces, with domestic hot water provided by indirect water heaters.
“The work at new Hutterite communities, like Deep Creek, is never completed all at once as it may be on a typical commercial site,” says Davie, who made numerous trips to the Athabasca site.
“As these communities perform their own work and value self-sufficiency above all else, they tend to follow the schedule of the seasons. This means that they prioritize completing the work themselves before offering it to others.”
The pace of the work was dictated by the colony’s immediate need and by each seasons’ agricultural activities. When time and circumstances permit, they return to these rooms to complete their technical HVAC tasks, but the seasonal agricultural work takes precedence. This, along with the scale of the project, dictated the pace of the work for Mulder employees, who had to drive six hours from Lethbridge to the colony.
“The focus on serving the larger needs of the community first is quite unique to the culture of Hutterite Colonies, and this stands in stark contrast to the demanding nature of the construction industry where we’re tied to owner schedules and profitability,” notes Davie. “And, as they’re installing their own equipment, and will be responsible for maintaining it, the Hutterites tend to value reliability, durability and service above all else.” <>