The Green Builder

Energy and power have been an increasing problem in this country, especially when it comes to powering the equipment in ambulances. With a need to energize power stretchers, portable radios, ECG monitors and a host of other equipment on an ambulance, the need for fresh, fully charged batteries is a constant challenge.

It was a particular problem for Sunstar Paramedics, the sole provider for emergency services in Pinellas County, Fla., one of the busiest systems in the country. Sunstar provides service for more than 1 million people and runs close to 400 transports every day, transporting some 130,000 patients annually. So it’s essential to keep their ambulances in top shape and ready at all times.

“With all the advances in equipment, we’ve become battery dependent in our ambulances, and we found ourselves having to constantly replace batteries,” says Terence Ramotar. “When you’re in a high-performing system, it’s critical to have all of your units out spotting the calls and keeping ambulances in service. We were losing time in the field because of battery replacements.”

A Better Idea
The more Ramotar thought about it, the more he wanted a solution to the problem of having to constantly replace and recharge vehicle batteries.

“I was trying to think of a different way to attack a problem,” he says. “We are deployed out in the field, and the only access to power that we have is the one coming from the ambulance.” With more than 70 ambulances, replacing batteries also became a significant cost. Another problem: providing enough outlets to recharge all the existing batteries in ambulances before the next shift.

In grappling with the problem, Ramotar, who is now vice president for TransCare Ambulance in Tampa, Fla., wondered how other mobile environments dealt with batteries and power issues. He began to do some research and asked around, and someone pointed out to him that sailboats have the same problem.

“They are out on the water for days and sometimes months at a time, and they are dependent on radios and microwaves. How did they deal with that?” Ramotar asks. The answer: solar panels. “The idea popped into my head: Wouldn’t it be neat if our ambulances were powered by the sun?”

Some people may have just left it as an interesting, maybe somewhat far-fetched idea, but Ramotar is an unconventional man. Sure, the idea of having ambulances powered by solar power hadn’t been done before, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be done, right? Ramotar decided to find out.

Going Back to School
“I contacted one of our expert sales guys who sold solar panels and asked him to come in and teach us about solar panels and solar energy,” he says. “We went back to school to learn about simple electricity, watts and ohms.”

Ramotar and his team from Sunstar put pencil to paper and calculated the energy they would need to power a fully loaded ambulance all day. “We figured out that we could probably charge our batteries continuously with an 85-watt solar panel,” he says. Since the technology has advanced, thereby shrinking the size of solar panels while boosting their energy output, Ramotar thought they could achieve the power they needed with a 4′ x 3′ panel on each ambulance.

“At that point I thought it could be a valid idea, and I thought I could solicit support,” he says. Ramotar went to his boss, and the two proposed the idea to the president of Paramedics Plus, illustrating the costs and feasibility of such a project.

The whole idea looked not only feasible, but surprisingly realistic. The solar panels and battery chargers were fairly inexpensive, relatively speaking. The biggest expense would be the battery chargers for the packs that had to accompany the solar panels.

All in all, the total cost to outfit each ambulance with solar panel, batteries and rechargers would come in at less than $3,000 per vehicle, a relative bargain in an age of million-dollar equipment.

“We decided that when we purchased new vehicles, we could roll that cost in,” Ramotar says. “It’s going to prove cost-effective in battery replacement, in addition to the savings in manpower that we are now using to manage these batteries.”

Perhaps most importantly, Sunstar is saving energy by utilizing the sun, without continuing to draw down power in the vehicles. It’s a win-win all the way around.

“We got full support from our corporate administration to go ahead with the project,” Ramotar says.

Designing the Future
A solar panel and set of designs were given to the fleet supervisor to test. Another innovative thinker, the supervisor attached the panel to a shed, which he then attached to a battery, and then to meters, which allowed the energy output to be measured and stored.

“We found that the solar panel would keep the battery topped off,” says Ramotar. “We also found that when we disconnected the solar panel and attached the chargers to the battery, even if there was no sun, we could keep them charged for upwards of 72 hours.”

American Emergency Vehicles, a leading manufacturer of ambulances and other emergency vehicles, was asked to design the solar-panel topped ambulance. AEV’s engineers grabbed hold of the idea with gusto. Sunstar Paramedics shipped the necessary equipment and then flew to Jefferson, N.C., to meet with the AEV crew.

“When we got there, they had already laid everything out and had started coming up with the design on how we were going to actually mount the panel on the ambulance,” Ramotar says.

Because a panel needs airflow underneath it, they were set about four inches off the top of the ambulance and placed at an angle, with the front of the panel mounted slightly higher than the back. So if anything hit it, the object would slide down, as opposed to the panel taking a direct hit that could possibly shatter it.

Mounting the battery chargers also required some thought and ingenuity. “We mounted the chargers in the back, making sure they were in the right location and not in the way of the crews doing their daily work,” Ramotar says.

It worked perfectly.

“The crews don’t have to come back in or find a supervisor to switch batteries,” says Ramotar. “They’ve become entirely self-sufficient for a least a 12-hour period.”

In essence, the solar panel now acts as a backup power system for the entire ambulance. “We’ve designed a solar panel connected to a tertiary battery that powers all of our charged equipment and also provides a backup for the rest of the ambulance,” says Ramotar. “People love it. In the long run, it saves money, it saves time, and it saves the environment.”

Sunstar Paramedics has now reconfigured a half-dozen of its ambulances. The agency expects to equip its entire fleet of more than 70 ambulances with the vehicles that have solar panels over the next five years.

Embracing the Idea
Perhaps the biggest compliment comes from the EMTs and paramedics themselves, who are thankful they can focus on their jobs without worrying about the logistics of power.

“Whether they are using a power stretcher, or applying a 12-lead monitor, or using their portable radios, most paramedics are always wondering, “˜When is the battery going to die?'” Ramotar says. “This has relieved that issue, allowing them to focus on patient care.”

Ramotar believes that it’s important to relieve ambulances of the need for continuous dependency on power, thereby allowing personnel to achieve more efficiency, better response times, and better patient care.

“It relieves us of the burden of the logistics behind managing batteries in all of our equipment,” he says. “We can power everything we need to travel. It’s essential for us to be out there every minute responding to patients and taking care of their needs, and not wasting our time.”

Ramotar also believes that the solar power solution lends itself to the importance of supporting greener initiatives, in EMS and in other industries.

“All industries need to embrace green initiatives,” he says. “I truly believe that no matter what industry you’re in, there’s no excuse for not going green. Not only are we going green, but we’re providing a better level of service.”

Ramotar hopes other industries will critically evaluate whether solar-powered vehicles–or other machinery for that matter–may be a feasible solution within their environment.

“Most agencies that have traveled along this technology path have also become battery dependent, and we are all facing the same issues and challenges,” he says. “This actually fixes the root of the problem and doesn’t require a continuous design process. My hope is that more industries and agencies will use this.”

If they do, they’ll have Terence Ramotar, Sunstar Paramedics, and AEV to thank.

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