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Underground hot water is just the ticket for my Aussie visitors

I’ve always felt lucky to have many Australian relatives. Not only do I get to visit them, but I get to see them visiting Boise. Australia has a lot in common with Idaho, but you’d never know it if you spent time with my family as they take in our sights and sounds.

Last week, the Aussie visitors were my Australian-born Dad Peter, who lives in the Boston area, and his brother, Malcolm, who lives in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia.

The two are traveling the Pacific Northwest in a rented RV, and they pulled up in our neighborhood last week after a leisurely journey from Palo Alto via the Oregon Coast. They immediately opened a bottle of good Australian wine.

Malcolm has been to the United States many times, but he retains his Aussie ways, including a deep curiosity about the rest of the world and a willingness to comment on his observations. Right away he noted the curious paradox of seeing, from our porch, both a dog towing a bicycle and a bicyclist towing a dog (the dog was riding in a trailer).

Malcolm also did what Australian visitors never fail to do: He interrupted conversations to point out to everyone that he’d seen a squirrel run up a tree. This greatly surprised my children.

(This works in reverse. When I’m in Australia, I can’t help remarking on the spectacular grey-and-pink cockatoos, or galahs, that casually hang around in flocks. My excitement over these astonishing parrot-like creatures bores my cousins deeply).

Australians are also surprised at the size of our pickup trucks (which they call “utes,” for “utility”) and taken aback at our predilection for peanut butter. Malcolm and Peter also went to one of my son James’ baseball games, where a friendly spectator explained the rules. He didn’t flinch when Malcolm called a home run a field goal and the umpire “the judge.”

Other than all these ready-made attractions, I wasn’t sure what to show the worldly Malcolm and Peter. Being Australian, they have traversed Indonesian mountain roads in dysfunctional rental cars and toured Calcutta by rickshaw. My dad has been to Boise many times.

Luckily, Boise has the distinction of using underground hot water to heat many large downtown buildings. As a transplant, I’ve always found this interesting, and I had a feeling Malcolm and Peter would too.

Tours are available for the asking. And so it was that we went to the state Division of Public Works to see the inner workings of the geothermal system that heats eight state-owned office buildings and the Idaho Statehouse. There are three other such systems in the city. Malcolm had heard tales of the hot springs in rural Idaho, but when I tried to explain we heat large buildings with natural hot water, it was clear he didn’t believe me. Maybe that’s because Aussies live in a state of perennial water shortage.

Ric Johnston, facilities manager for the division, took us into the passage beneath the state buildings and showed us a heat exchanger. As we spoke, hot water traveled above our heads in huge insulated pipes. Framed maps and diagrams on the walls converted the unassuming concrete passage into a visitors center for the engineeringly inclined.

Later, Ric took us out to see the wellhead. All the while, he patiently answered questions geothermal, geographical and geopolitical.

This unorthodox sightseeing idea was just the ticket. Geothermal is nothing new to Idaho or to Boise, where the Artesian Hot and Cold Water Company Limited was formed in 1891.

But you just don’t get this kind of close-up look at a free heat source very often on your travels. My father, who lives in the expensively heated state of Massachusetts, was especially amazed.

Geothermal water is not only saving the state of Idaho an estimated $1 million a year in heating. It’s also supplying the kind of experience that I know family and friends will hear about when these travelers return to their respective homes.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.