Save Energy

Power Grab

Facilities departments combine sophisticated technologies with ordinary

Power Grab

PETER PISTORINO SAYS there's a name for the way he thinks a school district should launch an energy conservation initiative: an envelope approach. He says the term refers to looking at the outside package of a structure to check for inefficiencies: Examine the observable, external sources of energy loss such as the doors, windows, insulation, and weather stripping. "Do the obvious first," Pistorino explains, "and then get more finite."

Pistorino, facilities director for Hudson Public Schools in Hudson, MA, recommends a comprehensive strategy that leaves no possible energy saver unexplored. "Attack a problem from every side," he says.

Like many of his peers, Pistorino has concentrated much of his efforts on lowering heating, cooling, and lighting costs in his district. According to the nonprofit organization Alliance to Save Energy, a promoter of energy efficiency worldwide, US schools spend more on energy than on computers and textbooks combined; heating, cooling, and lighting usually combine for the majority of that consumption, and as such, represent the largest opportunities for savings.

For Pistorino, that has meant first reviewing and comparing respective energy costs and usage at the various schools in his district based on square-foot costs, and then setting off on a number of practical ways to save on consumption and reduce costs, starting with the elementary step of shutting down computers when school is out, and then auditing schools at night to determine whether any equipment has been left on-- and to come up with ways to achieve greater efficiencies.

Pistorino suggests several actions, such as using timers to shut off exhaust fans when they reach a certain temperature range, and turning off furnaces whenever possible. Drawing a comparison to the energy expended by a car engine that continually stops and starts, Pistorino advises replacing old motors in the district's heating system with new ones that oscillate. He cites the savings to be had by lighting your schools with more efficient bulbs and by shutting off all unused lights.

Pistorino has put his advice to work in his own district. Regulating the use of exhaust fans at one campus cut 60 percent off the school's annual gas consumption, which came to $8,000 in savings. Turning off unused lights districtwide reduced electricity costs $100,000 in a year's time. He talks about the need to try things out to see how much energy can be saved without draining performance: "I see a light with four fixtures in it. What if I took one out? I reduce energy costs by 25 percent. What if I do that across the whole school? And then across all the schools? Little things make a big difference."

Pistorino's work gets a big assist from technology. A digital control system lets the facilities management department identify and troubleshoot problems remotely. Through the use of a web-based system from Automated Logic, a schematic illustrates the problem visually, pinpointing the classroom or office in the district where attention is needed. Typically, Pistorino receives a cell phone or PDA notification. He can adjust thermostats or power down PCs by simply tapping into his laptop. "I have 100 percent control-- heat, light, anything," he says. "I can even lock the doors."

Technology has also been instrumental in many of the energy-saving measures undertaken by Mississippi's Aberdeen School District, under the watch of its former technology director, Kevin Knuckles, who left Aberdeen in January to take an equivalent post farther south in the state, at Pearl Public School District. For example, to carry out the basic job of shutting off idle computers, Aberdeen began using Faronics' Deep Freeze software. As a result, the district's computers no longer run 24/7; the system powers down all workstations automatically at 5 p.m. each afternoon.

To further reduce power consumption, Knuckles replaced seven PCs in the data center with a single PC and six thin clients (monitor, keyboard, and mouse) connected to an NComputing X300 desktop virtualiztion device, which consumes a single watt of power compared to the 120 watts consumed by a typical PC. The six thin clients connect to the one PC and use its computing power. The setup has sharply reduced energy usage and costs in the district.

Aberdeen's data center is its lifeblood. It supports school administrative software, curriculum-based and research-based applications, time and attendance software, as well as phone system/voicemail, security hardware, internet connections, e-mail, and a host of other applications. If it were to fail, Knuckles says the district "would be dead in the water. Downtime means we are failing the students and the teachers."

As insurance against that kind of large-scale disruption, Aberdeen adopted the American Power Conversion InfraStruXure on-demand system to replace multiple battery-backup units in the data center. The single backup unit uses power more efficiently and generates less heat, reducing the load on the air conditioning system. The tangle of cables from multiple backup units is gone, and the data center can continue to run for nearly two hours in the case of power failure.

Knuckles explains that all of the savings created by reductions in energy free up money that can be put toward classroom technology purchases, which then translates into a district's ultimate yield. "Our profit is successful schools," he says, "which come from successful students and teachers. Today that means providing the best educational tools and technologies to support classroom instruction."

For Ventura Unified School District in Southern California, the effort to trim power consumption began at base camp. The district's administrative headquarters is located in a 120-square-foot, two-story office building that's more than 30 years old, and its heating, venting, and air conditioning equipment was at the end of its lifecycle.

As part of a fully upgraded system that was rolled out in December, the district is using Optimum Energy's Ultra High Performance HVAC optimization software, which enables building performance to be tracked and measured remotely, verifying savings on both a real-time and historical basis. The technology is expected to have a dual savings impact on Ventura USD, sparing an estimated 450,000 kilowatt hours and $80,000 per year.

"We wanted to purchase new equipment that was efficient and in line with our desire to save costs while protecting the environment," says David Inger, who works directly with the district's facilities department as energy projects manager for the Ventura County Regional Energy Alliance, a consortium of public agencies that work on the conservation of energy resources in Ventura County. "We're hoping it will also reduce our maintenance costs and give us the ability to monitor system performance in as precise a manner as possible."

US SCHOOLS' ENERGY COSTS:

  • Total more than $8 billion per year.Power Grab
  • Average out to $175 per student.
  • Could be reduced by up to 20 percent through energy-efficient operations and maintenance strategies.
  • Could be lowered at the district level by up to30 percent through the construction of high-performance schools.
  • Are schools' second-largest expense behind personnel costs.

Source: US Department of Energy

However, Ventura USD doesn't expect technology alone to lead its energy initiatives. The first step it took was to change organizational culture, attitudes, and behavior. Energy conservation education has become a priority in the district. The superintendent regularly issues green directives to the school principals, who pass the message down the line to their staffs. The payoff: Energy awareness has grown, and small behavioral changes occur regularly in the schools and administrative offices, from reducing thermostat settings to conserving the use of nonessential appliances such as microwave ovens.

"You need to educate your staff about the importance of changing behavior and how it benefits the district, especially with energy costs going up," says Jorge Gutierrez, the district's director of facilities services. "It must be a full-time effort."

About the Author

Paula Jacobs is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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