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Conserving Energy in Schools

written by: KennethSleight•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 4/17/2011

Has your school embraced green technology? Are you looking for ways to conserve energy at school? If not there are plenty of reasons to do it including a huge savings in the budget. Energy conservation can be achieved by everyone from the student all the way up to the superintendent.

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    energy use commercial buildings-small The green movement has really gained speed over the past decade and with the current economic turmoil institutions are looking at ways to cut costs. Energy is one of the places that often gets overlooked although it is one of the easiest ways to save money. At school kids can be taught to look for energy savings that they can utilize in their everyday lives. The best way to do this is through hands-on training and open discussion, making the greening of their building into part of the curriculum and culture of the school. But where do you start such a huge overhaul in such a bureaucratic system? Start by getting the attention of the people at the top. When they ask, “Why do we need to conserve energy?" show them not only the environmental reasons for doing so, but also how their bottom line can get healthier with a bit of energy conservation.

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    Creating a Plan of Action

    The first step in any major project is to create a plan of action. With 13% of all energy use claimed by educational institutions including elementary, middle, and high schools and colleges any change that can be made will have a huge effect on total energy consumption. In your plan you’ll want to highlight this fact and the perceived problems, in this case the cost of not using energy efficient strategies, in the school system.

    Once the problem is defined then it is time to do some research by getting a copy of the budget highlighting the energy usage and cost associated with not only the actual energy cost, but the cost of maintenance as well. Offer up some preliminary ideas on areas in which you think the energy costs could be cut. Include an energy audit by a reputable local energy auditing company. They will help you identify areas where the building may need to be shored up to prevent temperature fluctuations and places where low cost additions may be used to reduce energy consumption. The energy audit can even help identify sources of free materials or organizations that help fund large scale projects. Energy auditing companies working in the field should also have access to helpful people and organizations of which you might not necessarily be aware.

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    Doing an Energy Audit

    Energy What is an energy audit? According to energysavers.gov an energy assessment (audit) is the “first step to assess how much energy your home consumes and to evaluate what measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient." This stands true for a commercial building, like a school, as well. These professional assessors use a variety of tools to do their jobs including “blow doors" and infrared cameras to identify the source of possible energy leaks. They can identify points of missing or ineffective insulation, air leakage from windows and doors, and a variety of other similar temperature related problems. The auditors will also take an inventory of the building usage, when and where people are in the buildings, and at what times. This will help them determine the best ways to help maximize energy savings. Based on your particular needs and your current budget situation, an energy audit can help you make a prioritized list to tackle energy issues in the most effective way.

    Continue to Page 2 for ways to conserve energy at school.

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    Page two of ways to conserve energy at school covers the utility costs at a school and where they can be lowered. One of the major factors is off-hour usage when the school is being powered for limited or no occupants. This page addresses technological tools such as automatic switches for lights and toilets and energy monitors for vending machines and soft drink/soda machines. Even small things like changing the bulbs in Exit signs can have a significant contribution over the life of the light.
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    Conserving Energy in Basic Utility Usage

    Basic utilities include the necessary heat, light, and water sources that make a building habitable. Energy piped in from an outside source, the utility company, comes at a price. Finding ways to conserve energy at school will result in using fewer units of energy, which will bring down the total cost; the less you use, the more you save. Conserving energy in a building the size of a school can seem like a monumental task. There’s just no way that every student is going to remember to shut off the lights when they are the last to leave a room or to turn off the faucet after lathering up and rinsing their hands.

    This is where technology becomes our friend. There are plenty of items that can be installed in a building to monitor and control light and water usage. You’ve probably seen some of them already. There are sensor controlled faucets that run for a set period of time when a motion sensor beneath the sink is tripped. There are automatic flush and low flow toilets that conserve water by limiting the frequency and volume of flushes. Motion detectors hooked up to the light switches in the rooms of a school automatically shut the lights off when no movement is present for five minutes.

    The addition of high tech gadgets may not be in your budget, so it might help to use some decidedly old school techniques like putting a brick in the reservoir of each toilet to reduce the amount of water in each flush or assigning light duty to a member of the classroom for each week. Get all of your computers attached to surge protection switches and make sure they are turned off at the end of each day (this should be assigned to the teachers). Build a passive solar space heater for the colder rooms in the building. Use UV film on windows that receive direct sunlight in the afternoon.

    Think outside the box. There are hundreds of devices that use energy that we ignore every day. About.com suggests, “ask(ing) your principal to add an ‘energy monitor’ to school vending machines. A simple device that soda manufacturers often pay for, one can reduce energy costs on school vending machines by up to 50 percent. By installing 20 devices in six schools, Moscow School District in Idaho was able to save close to $20,000 a year."

    Lightbulbsdirect.com suggests that changing out the light bulbs in Exit signs can effectively save $450 per bulb over its 100,000 hour operating life. How many Exit signs are there in your building? Just think of there being no need to change bulbs for over eleven years.

    Any of these methods will result in a marked reduction in energy usage during both in school and after school hours. There is a great energy saving checklist issued by the U.S. Department of Energy that covers some of the basic precepts here, like changing out light bulbs and using reusable instead of disposable containers.

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    Conserving by Limiting Off Hours Usage

    By limiting off hours usage of energy, a substantial amount of energy can be saved. For instance, instead of leaving all of the lights in the entire school on while the janitors are working, suggest a schedule in which they all work in a particular area of the building and only use the lights in that section at one time. Have computers set to shut down automatically after an hour of non-use during the evening hours. This can be done through the basic settings available on most Windows based operating systems. Use programmable thermostats in the classrooms to keep the temperature steady through the night so there aren’t huge spikes in the energy usage during peak hours. If your school has a boiler room that uses old style water heaters make sure they are properly insulated. Add insulation blankets where they are necessary.

    Many schools have after school activities running all the time, and although this is great for the community, it can cause all kinds of energy usage issues. These issues are best dealt with by limiting access to certain areas of the buildings after the administrators have gone for the day.

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    Conserving by Recycling

    Recycling may not come to the top of many lists when energy costs and savings are discussed, but it should. By reducing the amount of waste that needs to be hauled away from the school and effectively reducing the trips by the refuse company, the school can save money. By separating out papers, plastics, aluminum and other recyclables that can be sold to recycling buyers, the school can actually begin to turn a profit on trash. So, although recycling may not save a huge amount of money for the school, it does have the potential to make the school some money as well as being environmentally friendly. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that “making a ton of paper from recycled paper saves up to 17 trees and uses 50% less water."

    To learn ways to conserve energy at school through the purchase of new equipment see Page 3.

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    This part addresses why we need to conserve energy and covers the purchase of renewable energy resources including solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal energy systems. Based on where and in what state the school is located, matching grants may be available to pay for all or part of new renewable energy installations. You can also learn how landscaping and gardening on the grounds, as well as recycling of waste items, can help conserve energy
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    Conservation through New Purchases

    On the administrative side of things ways to conserve energy at school include putting a policy into place that only allows for energy efficient appliances to be purchased by the school. All of these should be Energy Star approved or better. Appliances are a good way to save a bit of money on energy, but the real savings come in changing the way the school gets its power in the first place. Solar panel systems, wind turbines, and geothermal systems are all great options for a school district willing to put out a bit of cash up front for long term savings.

    Solar Panel System

    Photovoltaic Sun Panels Solar panels have come down considerably in price as of late and look to be a fantastic opportunity to save on energy costs. A battery bank and solar panel system can easily be established for under $10,000 and would pay for itself in under two years. To run an entire school on a solar bank might be cost prohibitive up front, but there are several “green" grants available through both local and federal government agencies. The database of state incentives for renewable and efficiency has links to several of these grant opportunities. With all of the space available on the roof of a school building, this is a perfect environment for solar energy collection. But electricity generating solar panels aren’t the only kind. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Low-temperature solar collectors also absorb the sun's heat energy, but instead of making electricity, use the heat directly for hot water or space heating in homes, offices, and other buildings."

    Wind Turbines

    Purchasing a wind turbine could work to offset some of the electrical costs of a school while also becoming the center point for serious discussions dealing with aerodynamics. There are fewer grants available for this type of installation, but the efficiency of a wind turbine is far greater than a solar panel system in some areas of the country (the Pacific Northwest especially). Engineered Processes Systems (EPS) has a school grant that provides the set-up of a wind turbine in Ohio schools if your current electrical provider is one of the five investor owned utility companies in the state. According to EPS, “The installed price for an Entegrity 50 kW wind turbine is less than $250,000 and if you are eligible for a grant, that cost will be reduced by 50%." They also claim a “100% success rate finding grant dollars for school wind turbines."

    GeoThermal systems

    According to the Wayne White Counties Electrical Cooperative, “With a geothermal system, (also known as geo-exchange systems) a reasonably tight 2,000 sq. ft. home can be heated and cooled for about $1.00 a day. You'll pay several thousand more up front, but in many cases, the payback can come in as little as 4 to 6 years." Imagine a system that could cover a 200,000 sq. ft. building. The initial investment cost would be cost would be around $15 million but it would be recouped in heating and cooling costs in under ten years. After that it becomes a savings of 25 to 30% a year for hundreds of years. Any of these energy saving options would interest the Kresge Foundation. They are always looking for ways to conserve energy at school through partially or fully funded grants.

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    Energy Conservation through Landscaping and Gardening

    Landscaping is one of the cheapest ways to conserve energy at school. Planting deciduous trees on the west and southwest sides of the building will block out sun in the summer and let it through in the winter. This will significantly lower the air conditioning bill as less heat will reach the outer walls of the school. In the same way, you can plant a thick evergreen hedge in front of the north walls of the school to prevent gusting winds from wreaking havoc on the windows, breaking seals and causing need for extra caulking. This will cut down on drafts and allow a maintainable temperature in even the northernmost rooms of the building.

    Creating a garden on the school grounds will give the students a place to practice composting. This will eliminate much of the food waste from school lunches. The compost will allow the students to grow any type of garden they wish- from a butterfly garden to attract insects to study to a vegetable garden for community use. Using a garden to promote environmental thinking could inspire students to come up with the next big way to conserve energy at school.

    Although it may seem like a big project, learning new ways to conserve energy at school can start with the simple changing of a few light bulbs and soon snowball into the creation of a completely self-sustaining, energy efficient environment.