HALFMOON -- Twenty-five years ago the nation's first solar-powered town hall opened in Halfmoon.
''The people were so excited,'' said George Keleshian, who worked on the project as vice president of Advanced Energy Cooling. ''It was the best thing that the town has ever done.''
Then a growing town of 11,000, Halfmoon made a name for itself: Solar Town U.S.A.
''Harry Reasoner came here,'' said Gerald ''Judd'' Morris, then the town's building inspector, now its director of parks and recreation. ''We had people from Saudi Arabia, England, France, all over the country.''
Reasoner, of 60 Minutes, did a piece on the town hall, built in the height of the 1970s energy crisis.
But despite its name, which still emblazons signs throughout the building, Solar Town U.S.A. isn't really solar any more. In fact, the Halfmoon Town Hall hasn't been entirely solar-powered for more than a decade.
''I really thought the system was intact,'' Supervisor Ken DeCerce said. ''It was gone for 12 years by the time I got there.''
''Every new supervisor, they changed something,'' he said.
The system eroded slowly, piece by piece, as it was replaced with more conventional heating and cooling units.
Halfmoon, like many other solar building owners, didn't keep up with the system as it aged, Keleshian said.
''Just because it's solar doesn't mean you don't service it,'' he said. ''Tell me where you have a furnace and you don't touch it.''
Keleshian, president of One Energy in Albany, said he offered to take a look at the system for the town. They said no.
Walking through the town hall that he helped build, Morris seemed resigned to its deterioration.
He pointed out assault after assault on the design of the building.
In the system's main equipment room, vents that brought cool air into the building from an underground ice chamber were removed to make room for a new gas furnace.
''I was against that in the beginning and I'm still against it,'' Morris said. ''They disrupted everything.''
Asked why the town would put up an awning that blocks sunlight from entering the building, Morris shrugged.
''They thought it was better,'' he said.
In the Building Department office, a water cooler and filing cabinet block one of the vents that is essential to the building's heating and cooling system.
''I wonder why it doesn't work,'' Morris said, as he pointed to a vent in the ceiling. This vent brings in hot or cold air, he said, but the air gets trapped in the room without the blocked-off vent.
Piles of chairs, desks and computers in the basement also block circulation, he said.
A waterfall fountain in the courtyard that once cooled offices isn't run any more. The pool that fed the waterfall is empty, except when filled with rainwater.
Solar design includes
waterfall, tons of sand
Sketches, framed and hung in the building's hallway, show a simplistic beauty to the design of the Town Hall.
The building's cooling system relies on water, pumped through an underground ice chamber, which returns to cool air pumped out of vents on the outer walls of the building.
In the center of the building, a pool of water is pumped upward and cascades down in a waterfall, producing cool air that flows into the building when glass doors onto the courtyard are open.
Heat is collected through solar panels, sunlight and body heat, circulated through the building, and stored for darker and cooler times in a 5 million pound sand bank under the Town Hall.
The key to both systems is the insulated nature of the building, Morris said. Thick foam in walls, ceiling and floor panels keeps the Town Hall warm or cool.
Keleshian said it is the insulation that continues to save the town money, even with blocked vents and other problems.
''If you shut everything off, any other building would freeze up,'' he said. But at the Halfmoon building, the architectural and insular design keeps the building warm, even in the winter.
The design also saves the town money, Keleshian said, pointing to a published report that the town only spent $455 for 10 months of heating costs in 1998. He said it would normally cost 10 times as much to heat a building the same size.
Energy crisis brings
solar building to town
The drive for solar power came and went with the energy crisis of 1974 and 1977-78, said Bruce Brownell, of Adirondack Alternative Energy in Edinburgh.
Over the past 25 years, Brownell's company has built 350 solar homes, but few commercial solar buildings were ever constructed, he said.
Brownell came to the solar power scene in the late 1960s, just out of college, and spoke to to a crowd of 380,000 on Earth Day, 1970.
''My message to the crowd that day was 'I build solar houses': huge roar,'' he said. ''I thought, 'I'll really do well.'''
At the time, he was right. The solar building business was booming.
Halfmoon's solar town hall project began as the brainchild of Morris and Edward O'Hanlon, then president of Advanced Cooler Manufacturing, a Halfmoon-based walk-in cooler company that moved into the solar industry.
''We would go to Snyder's, get a napkin, draw a picture of it,'' Morris said of the town hall, which would replace a smaller building.
With the help of O'Hanlon, Morris convinced the town to give a solar-powered building a try.
''Don't worry about the money,'' he recalled saying. ''Let's worry about the building.''
A $450,000 grant from 1976 Economic Development Act helped Morris' dream become a reality and in Oct. 14, 1978 the building was dedicated.
''No one will ever top this,'' then-Assemblyman Robert D'Andrea said at the building's dedication ceremony.
Design, human error
faulted for losses
Brownell, a competitor of O'Hanlon's who admits he may be biased, blames the building's failure on mistakes in its design.
The sulfur dioxide-filled solar collectors that had to be removed due to leaks should never have been installed, Brownell said. For 20 years, it had been known that leakage was a problem, he said.
Keleshian said leaks are routinely fixed in conventional refrigeration systems.
''They were probably pretty good at walk-in coolers, but they were probably pretty awful in human design,'' Brownell said of Advanced Cooler Manufacturing.
Morris and Keleshian are convinced that the building can still work as it was designed, saving the town even more money in fuel costs.
Keleshian said there are several buildings in town, including the home of Advanced Cooling on Route 146, that operate on the same system as the Halfmoon Town Hall.
''They're doing fine,'' he said.
Like Keleshian, Morris blames human error for the town's failure to maintain a fully-solar building.
Looking at the new gas furnace, Morris said a motor in the cooling system needed a new ball bearing, but instead engineers decided to slow the system down. Then people complained about being too hot.
The building originally ran at 68 degrees day in and day out. Now, Morris said, it runs at 75 degrees in the winter and 65 degrees in the summer.
''That doesn't make sense, but that's how they do it,'' he said.
Building Maintenance Supervisor Leo Brady, who is responsible for maintaining the Town Hall, did not return numerous calls for comment about the building.
After 25 years, few people with knowledge of the system that once heated and cooled the Town Hall remain in touch with it.
''This can work if they use it the right way,'' Morris said, shaking his head. ''All they need to do is ask me.''
of solar system unlikely
Halfmoon is now looking at designs for a new town hall. The solar building is expected to remain in the hands of the town, as a youth center and courtroom.
DeCerce said he doesn't expect any efforts to restore its solar system.
''It would be an exorbitant amount of money to bring it back,'' he said.
The solar system was the best the town could buy at the time, he said, but they're looking for something better now.
''That's not the state of the art energy conservation method,'' DeCerce said.
Brownell argues that solar is still the way to go. He said the homes he built in the 1970s are still as good as new.
''The concept doesn't change,'' he said. ''The concept is simple physics.''
Richard Perez, a researcher professor at Albany's Atmospheric Sciences Research Lab, agreed with DeCerce that the Town Hall was built using outdated solar heating and cooling techniques.
''Not everything worked as planned,'' he said of solar buildings built in the 1970s.
But just because some parts of the building failed, doesn't mean the town can't take advantage of its solar design, Perez said.
He said the town should take advantage of the insulation and ventilation system in the building, but not bother trying to fix more complex equipment.
''Simpler is always better in solar energy,'' he said. ''The complex systems give you headaches.''