The Search for Summer Savings

What I did during my summer vacation — this presentation is a rite of passage at the beginning of each school year. While third graders are talking excitedly about Disney World and King's Island, what tales are your facilities and maintenance staff members telling? With a little bit of planning and some hard work, you can make sure that they're discussing all the great energy-saving initiatives they implemented while school was out.

The summer months are a perfect time to conduct minor renovations such as lighting and boiler retrofits, temperature control changes and mechanical system rebalancing. These types of projects require a short amount of time to complete and can result in significant energy savings.

An added benefit of summer work is that, with students and teachers out of the classrooms, it is easier to make upgrades and the educational process is undisturbed. Lighting retrofits done during summer break avoid the "shock of change" that students and teachers may experience from adjusting to the new lighting levels. Boiler retrofits are best done during warm weather as little if any heating is needed, and the work schedule can be lengthened to avoid overtime charges from contractors. In addition, during the summer months there is enough time to train staff on the new systems.

While all the work previously mentioned is easily accomplished during the summer, it is important for planning efforts to start well before school is out. Any upgrades should be part of a long-range energy plan spanning several years. In addition, the further out you plan, the easier it is to line up consultants and contractors, allowing them to start the actual construction work as soon as summer begins and minimizing the chance that work will continue after the start of the new school year.

Above all, it is important to be realistic when planning for energy saving initiatives. It is better to complete 100 percent of three projects than 75 percent of five. When summer renovations run long, you risk interrupting the learning environment. Simply put, you can't put a price on happy teachers and students.

However, not all summer energy savings are accomplished through renovation work or the use of consultants. There are many things that a district's in-house staff can do to lower energy costs. General operations and maintenance items can have a huge impact on energy efficiency. Too often, decision makers underestimate the importance of simple maintenance issues such as boiler unit tube cleaning, coil cleaning, filter changes and refrigeration charging. Tasks such as these are the "nuts and bolts" of energy savings. Many are also only suited for summer work, due to the chemicals used for cleaning.

Developing an energy savings plan is another great — and low cost — summer activity. While building renovations often get the headlines, developing an effective energy savings policy can have just as much impact on the bottom line. Energy savings policies are particularly important when capital funds aren't available for items such as occupancy sensors in classrooms. Instilling a sustainable mindset in teachers and students — so that they automatically turn off lights if they see them on in an unoccupied room — can have the same effect as expensive automated equipment.

Whether it's renovations to school facilities or routine maintenance, the work you accomplish during the summer can have a big impact on the success of the next school year. In 2009, Gurnee School District 56 in Gurnee, Ill., completed minor facilities renovations over the summer. "The work we accomplished has led to a 20 to 25 percent reduction in energy costs," says Dr. John Hutton, superintendent. "As a result of these savings, we haven't needed to reduce the number of staff during the past school year. Any time you can do something to keep money where it belongs (in the classroom), that is cause for celebration."

Lowering energy costs so you can employ more teachers — not a bad way to spend your summer vacation.

Jim Allison, PE, CEM, LEED-AP, jallison@fhai.com, and Hilary Swanson, EIT, LEED-AP, BD+C, hswanson@fhai.com, are members of Fanning Howey’s engineering group. The two assist the firm in providing energy services to school districts across the country.

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