Schools Look to Cut Energy Bill

Schools Look to Cut Energy Bill

Aug. 08, 2002

Sandra Culmer, principal at Willow Springs Elementary, hasn't had any complaints about poor lighting in the school's classrooms. Even so, Culmer received a memo from the school system's Department of Facility Services informing her that sometime this fall, Willow Springs will be the beneficiary of a lighting upgrade as part of a new initiative for Fairfax County Public Schools, the Energy Savings for Kids Program.

"I've been told we're going to be a part of the program," Culmer said. "Lighting hasn't been a problem or a complaint."

In all, 108 older school-system buildings have been identified for the upgrading of light fixtures, energy-management control systems and other energy-saving technology. The money saved from switching to more energy-efficient elements will be used to pay for the upgrades themselves, so no additional funds are needed for the program.

Fourteen schools are involved: Braddock Elementary in Annandale, Centreville Elementary, Centreville High, Chantilly High and center, Clifton Elementary, Cooper Middle in McLean, Franconia Elementary and center in Alexandria, Hybla Valley Elementary in Mount Vernon, Louise Archer Elementary in Vienna, Oakton Elementary, Oakton High, Stone Middle in Centreville, Terraset Elementary in Reston and Willow Springs Elementary in Fairfax. Work is expected to begin in mid- to late fall.

"The construction will depend on the technology in the final scope of work," said Chris Farren, account manager for NORESCO, the Massachusetts-based company contracted to audit the schools and hire the contractors. NORESCO will also be paid from the savings generated by the changes.

"THE PURPOSE is to have a self-funding vehicle for facility improvements," said William Mutscheller, assistant director of maintenance services in the Department of Facilities Services for the school system. "We've identified 108 facilities with lighting upgrades to be the minimum improvement."

With a capital improvement plan (CIP) that falls $250 million short in fully funding needed projects over the next five years and has a $660 million deficit over the next eight years, the school system had to find other ways of upgrading buildings and save money at the same time.

The facilities that were selected are far enough down on the CIP that any upgrades would not interfere with planned renovation work. School buildings already under renovation or are in the planning stages automatically become outfitted with energy-saving technology.

NORESCO, which has an office in Vienna, had its engineers survey the schools earlier this year and is expected to submit its suggested upgrades this month. The company will then have to wait for approval from the School Board before any work can begin.

Farren said the company, which has been doing this type of work for 20 years, can calculate energy savings and guarantee the savings will pay for the costs.

"Light fixtures produce the greatest amount of savings. Some of these schools have 15- to 30-year-old fixtures," Farren said. "The upgrades can improve the environment and reduce costs."

Thomas Reinsel, mechanical engineer for maintenance services for the school system, said a majority of the work will take place in the evenings. Although staff and students probably will not see the work being done, they should notice brighter rooms and more even temperatures throughout the building.

WHILE THE PURPOSE is to save money, not everyone is convinced there will not be any financial impact on the schools.

"The one concern I have is the true cost," said Oakton High principal Charles Ostlund. "Since the electric bill is paid centrally, I suppose there will be a savings, but I'm concerned for the additional cost for the light bulbs. They are more expensive and are paid out of the school's account."

Ostlund said that even though the newer light bulbs are supposed to last longer, they will initially cost more for the schools to keep them in stock. On a whole, however, Ostlund said he thought the program was a good idea and hopes it does save the schools money.

Oakton High is already outfitted with technology that turns off lights when rooms aren't in use, but lighting has been a problem at the school. Several of the interior rooms do not have windows, making them less bright than others. Ostlund also hopes the upgrades will improve the temperatures in the school. Because of the automated heating and cooling system, several rooms get hot as the day progresses because the system does not account for body heat, he said.

Cooper Middle School principal Arlene Randall said the memo she received about the program gave her hope that she will be able to put her sweater in the closet for good.

"The one that caught my eye was heating and cooling, because we need help," Randall said. "If they can save us money and put it somewhere else to help us, that would be great."

ANOTHER ASPECT of the program is educational. Besides physical improvements, schools will be involved in an educational campaign teaching students and staff ways of conserving energy.

"NORESCO is just one part. There are other activities going on to curtail usage," said Bill Wood, mechanical engineer in design and construction services for the school system. "The Department of Energy is working with us on behavior modification."

In some cases, some schools are already ahead of the game. At Willow Springs, energy conservation is part of the curriculum. But unlike at Oakton High, where the lights will shut off automatically, the Willow Springs students learn to turn off unused lights by hand.

Posters and lessons will be developed to remind all staff and students to conserve energy. In addition, the school system is testing power-saving, server-based computers.