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New Mexico State University

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NMSU Instructors Give Windmills a Spin

LAS CRUCES - A gentle breeze off the Chihuahuan desert near Las Cruces sends the windmill's metal blades spinning into a gray blur. Thirty feet below, Carlos Rosencrans, a New Mexico State University expert on windmills, squinted up at towering fan motor judging the perfect pitch of the gears.

New Mexico State University water windmill repair experts Carlos Rosencrans, right, and Craig Runyan adjust a fan motor of a vintage Aermotor Windmill. For years the two instructors have taught students from across the nation the nuts and bolts of owning and maintaining a water windmills from setting the tower and fan to rebuilding the pump motors. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"Looks like this one's good for another year," he said, tossing a wrench into a tool box with a grin. Rosencrans is widely known as the go-to guy for a windmill in need of a tune up. He and a team of NMSU specialists have established themselves as highly sought after authorities on windmill repair. In fact, they are getting ready for another class of aspiring millers from across the country later this spring.

"Windmills aren't some historical artifact of Southwestern ranching life," said Rosencrans, who also works as an associate professor with NMSU's agricultural and extension education department. "Tens of thousands of them are still used out here every day," Rosencrans said.

For more than 35 years, NMSU instructors have been teaching farmers, ranchers and just interested individuals how to fix windmills. When the program first started, the class stretched over two weeks in the late spring. Over time the curriculum has been condensed to its current three-day format focusing solely on windmill maintenance and repair. All for $150, including hardhat. The next class runs May 13 to 15.

"We teach everything from setting the tower and fan to rebuilding the motor," said Craig Runyan, coordinator of NMSU's Water Task Force.

Initial topics range from terminology to wellhead protection, and how the well is constructed above and below ground. The class then moves to a field laboratory where a windmill motor is taken apart and reassembled by the students. Next, participants head off campus to an operating windmill for more hands-on repair sessions.

"The emphasis is on repair without a great deal of extra equipment," Runyan said. "A lot of these windmills are located in out of the way places," he said. "We show you how to use ropes, pulleys and cables to get the cylinder out of the well, which is no easy task. You have to safely know what you are doing."

The windmill project is funded in part by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service water quality and farm safety program.

Students seek out NMSU's windmill class for a variety of reasons from basic repair to appraisal of new alternative energy sources. "There's a growing interest in people trying to get back to the earth and reduce their energy costs," Runyan said. "And, more and more people just want their own windmill."

The class size is normally about 20, but students aren't necessarily home grown, Runyan said. "We've had them from all over the country from California to North Carolina," he said. "We even allow Texans to register."

Representatives from the state's Indian reservations have been among the most consistent participants, Runyan said. "Last year, we had eight Native American employees in class," he said.

A clear distinction needs to be made between a windmill for pumping water and a wind turbine for electrical power generation, Rosencrans said. Modern wind turbines built for power generation are sleek, metallic structures that can weigh 1 million pounds and tower more than 400 feet. A windmill for water is on a much smaller scale.

Basic windmill design for pumping water really hasn't changed in half a century. "It's nearly a perfect design, so you can still get parts for a 50-year-old windmill," Rosencrans said.

A windmill isn't that complicated, but it isn't cheap either.

Mechanically, the wind turns the blades, and that motion and energy is transferred to a rod at the bottom of the windmill tower. The rod moves up and down to lift water from the well into storage tanks on the surface.

The cost of a new windmill can be divided into two areas: above and below ground. The drilling portion ranges from $75 to $150 a foot, while the tower, wheel, motor and other equipment costs about $5,000.

If it weren't for the windmill, much of the American West would still be wild. The first commercially successful American windmills were developed in the 1850s, and since that time the rigs have spread across the West one isolated farm and ranch at a time. Prior to the advent of electricity, harnessing the wind was about the only way to pull water from the ground.

Historically, the United States was home to hundreds of windmill manufacturers. Today, that number has been winnowed down to two, but they're a busy two, said James Dean, one of NMSU's windmill instructors and distributor of Aermotor Windmill, a San Angelo, Tex., windmill manufacturer since 1888.

"We're making new windmills down at the factory five days a week," he said.

Looking ahead, NMSU instructors are considering adding remote location water pumping using solar powered pumps to the curriculum.

"There's been a lot of interest in solar energy because of the safety and liability advantages in terms of not having to work on the well towers," Runyan said. "However, there have been some problems with vandalism of the solar panels. Some people like to shoot at them. And there's an acceptance issue: A lot of ranchers just know and like their windmills."