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updated 7/17/2006 7:49:01 PM ET 2006-07-17T23:49:01

Keeping Honda Motor Co.'s research facility in this western Ohio village cool in the middle of a heat wave without breaking the bank is as simple as freezing water.

The Japanese automaker makes ice at night and then melts it during the day to cool the 1 million-square-foot complex of buildings, where vehicles are designed. Honda says the ice-chiller system saves money in electricity costs and uses less water than its old system.

Ice-chiller systems have been used in the past, but primarily by big operations such as convention centers, hospitals and universities.

"They got extremely popular in the early to mid-'90s. Manufacturers haven't really gotten aboard with it so much," said Bob Smith, vice president of the Baltimore-based RMF Engineering Inc., which designs the systems.

Vikki Michalski, spokeswoman for the Columbus-based American Electric Power Co., said use of ice-chiller systems among the utility's manufacturing customers in Ohio is unusual. It can take businesses a long time to recover the costs of buying such a system and they take a lot of space, she said.

Honda's ice pit, which sits under the floor of the power plant that serves the complex, is 20 yards long, about 9 yards wide and about 8 feet deep. A spider's web of white pipes snake through the spotlessly clean plant, and the only sound is the metallic hum of a condenser. Despite the ice-making system in its bowels, the plant is a comfortable 72 degrees.

The ice-making begins about midnight when two 450-ton chillers — giant metal tanks that look like massive medicine capsules — kick on.

The chillers take the salt water solution in the ice pit down to 22 degrees and circulate it through a series of coils. The water begins freezing on the coils and when the process is complete, about eight hours later, a 1-inch-thick sheet of ice has formed on the top of the pit.

When workers arrive in the morning at the plant about 35 miles northwest of Columbus, the icy solution is used to cool the air that circulates through the buildings, cooling workers and heat-generating computer systems. Honda said the system enables it to keep its electric rates down by reducing usage during peak power times.

John Dirrig, an engineer who works in the building, said he didn't notice any difference when Honda switched to the system a year ago.

"You would never know from a user standpoint," he said.

Honda officials declined to say how much the system cost.

Allen Bickel, senior facilities engineer, said that while it costs more than conventional systems, he expects it to pay for itself in three years and last as many as 30 years.

Bickel said the idea came from a Honda research facility in Japan, which was using a similar system.

"It's a large pit, and it looks like a snowcone," Bickel said. "They make ice, and they drop it down into the pit. Then they pull it back out and run it through a heat exchanger."

Honda was honored Thursday by the United States Green Building Council, a group that advocates for energy efficient, environmentally friendly buildings. The award came in part because of the ice-chilling system.

"What's cool about it is that it's using ice as the coolant as opposed to any sort of Freon," Elaine Barnes, executive director of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition, said of the ozone-depleting gas. "It is a very clean and environmentally friendly source of air. It's a very efficient system."

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