Right now it’s just a giant mud hole you could drive a four-wheeler straight into, but Nick Petrow says it is the future of his 111-year old family business.

That future, Petrow says, is with the underground geothermal energy system being installed at Petrow’s Restaurant at 60th and Center Streets. It is an array of 15 tubular wells dug 300 feet underground and a large water holding tank known in the trade as a battery, along with a variety of gadgets and gizmos that connect the whole shebang to the restaurant itself.

The idea behind such systems is to capture and recycle heat and water generated from restaurant operations using the underground tank and wells, which benefit from the constant subterranean temperature of about 50 degrees. In the winter, the recycled water stored underground absorbs heat from earth that can be used for the restaurant’s water heating.

In the summer, heat is expelled from the building and transferred via the recycled water to the cooler earth. From there, the cooled water can be reused to power refrigerators and air conditioners.

“This will reduce our energy costs over the next 20 years,” Petrow said. “We are projecting a 75 percent reduction on energy needed for water heating.”

Those are the kinds of numbers that are welcome news to restaurant owners. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates food-price inflation will approach 3 percent this year, with some commodities ranging much higher. Beef and veal are up 15 percent.

Meanwhile, operators find it a losing battle to raise prices, while at the same time face traffic that is little changed. (Restaurant visits have risen less than 1 percent during the past several years.)

“Energy costs are rising for restaurants along with everyone else, so this makes sense,” said Warren Solochek, a vice president at New York-based NPD Group, which compiles research reports on the restaurant industry. “Wages are up too, with the pressure we are seeing on the minimum wage.”

The investment has been a big one for Petrow’s, started as a candy shop in Fremont in 1903. First, Petrow had to buy and demolish the adjacent Chinese restaurant, Hunan Garden, to make room for the system. Then he had to buy the system itself — pipes, compressors, pumps, valves — and pay for the installation.

He figures it will cost about $50,000, land acquisition excluded, by the time it is finished.

“Hopefully, we will recover that in about four or five years,” Petrow said. “Winter heat should be free.”

Another benefit, Petrow said, is sewer costs. He plans on recycling all dish and kitchen water for use as the medium that will absorb the “lost heat” thrown off by cooking and heating, heat that will be captured by machines called heat exchangers and transferred to the recycled water.

From there, it can be used for a variety of not-for-consumption uses, such as water heating, air conditioning and refrigeration.

“Instead of paying the city for water, paying to heat it, then pumping it down the drain, we will recycle it,” Petrow said.

Geothermal systems are not new, with many in operation in Nebraska, said Duane Crawford, owner of Omaha’s Dakota Geo Consultants, which is installing the Petrow system. There are big ones at Ralston Arena, SAC Federal Credit Union headquarters in Papillion and at the Lancaster County Adult Detention Center.

What differentiates Petrow’s, said Crawford, who has installed many, is the use of an underground tank made of a vapor barrier to line the big hole in the ground that is then filled with sand and water. Traditional geothermal tanks are made of concrete and don’t use sand, which is said to have superior thermal conductivity properties.

“This is the only large commercial one of its kind I know of,” Crawford said.

James Schenck, territory manager for South Dakota heat pump distributor Energy Dynamics, said he knows of about a dozen such systems in the country.

“It is in its infancy,” said Schenck, whose company has put about 10,000 geothermal heat pumps into service. “It is an alternative of an alternative energy solution.”

Petrow said he is enthused to be on the cutting edge, even right now, with a muddy field on the west side of his restaurant the only thing he has to show so far. But come next spring, the area where the geothermal system is being installed will be paved over, kitchen clean, and the site of an outdoor bar and patio.

“In addition to what we will save on utilities, we will have room to serve another 30 to 50 people,” Petrow said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-3133, russell.hubbard@owh.com

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