Shining a Light on Savings

April 1, 2000
Schools and universities can save energy and money by evaluating lighting systems and changing behaviors.

It takes a lot of energy to light and heat a school building through a winter in Buffalo, N.Y. So, schools in that area have plenty of incentive to make their lighting systems more energy-efficient.

By retrofitting older buildings with modern equipment that uses less energy, schools-in Buffalo or elsewhere-can cut their energy bills and in many cases improve the quality of lighting for students and staff.

That was the impetus behind a huge lighting project about four years ago at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The university replaced some 50,000 lighting fixtures, switching from T-12 fluorescent bulbs to more efficient T-8 bulbs. This upgrade typically pays for itself in energy savings in a couple of years.

The school also converted from electromagnetic ballasts to electronic ballasts, which convert power to light more efficiently. They provide the same amount of light and use up to 25 percent less energy.

"In some buildings, we saved 30 to 40 percent in wattage," says Walter Simpson, energy officer at the university. "There were a couple of buildings where we saved as much as 70 percent and maintained lighting or improved it."

The university also used reflectors and diffusers to spread the light more efficiently.

Those kinds of improvements also will save energy in elementary and secondary schools.

"For K-12 schools, energy costs are typically the second largest expense after personnel," says Merrilee Harrigan, senior program manager for the Alliance to Save Energy's Green Schools Project. "And lighting in schools is a huge chunk of the energy bill."

Sunshine Through the Window The most cost-effective lighting is sunlight. The more natural light a school can use, the less it has to consume energy for electric lights. But many buildings designed in the last 30 to 40 years can't take advantage of natural light.

In the 1960s, districts began building schools that de-emphasized the use of natural light. The thinking was that having many windows made heating and air conditioning less efficient and made a building more vulnerable to break-in or vandalism.

Now school designers are once again extolling the virtues of natural light. New types of windows have minimized concerns about heat loss and vandalism, and a recent study by Heschong Mahone Group, an architectural firm in Fair Oak, Calif., (see AS&U, September 1999, p. 20) found that students in classrooms with natural light performed better in math and reading than students in artificially lighted classrooms.

When schools can't tap natural light, retrofitting is the next best option. For instance, a compact fluorescent uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb.

"Not only do you use one-fourth of the energy, but the compact fluorescents last 10 times as long," says Harrigan.

Other steps schools and universities can take:

-Remove lighting fixtures that are not needed.

-Use photosensors outside buildings to activate lights only when daylight is insufficient.

-Install occupancy or motion sensors that activate lights only when someone is in a room.

-Acquire control systems that automatically dim lighting in off-peak hours when the building is not being used. Since much of the space in a school is unoccupied for large parts of the day, schools can realize substantial savings with control systems.

-Where appropriate, paint walls with white or light-colored paint to maximize reflectivity.

-Use window blinds to maximize the use of natural light and reduce the need for artificial light.

-Minimize use of incandescent and halogen lamps, which use energy inefficiently.

Schools may be aware that they could light their facilities more efficiently, but feel they don't have the resources to upgrade and retrofit their systems. But they can still reduce their energy costs through education programs such as the Alliance to Save Energy's Green Schools project.

"You can save a lot just by eliminating waste," says Merrilee Harrigan, senior program manager for Green Schools. "The purpose of Green Schools is twofold: To save energy in school facilities, and teach students the links between energy and the environment. We want more than just the principal and the custodian to be concerned about the building's energy consumption."

Districts that participate in Green Schools promise that schools that cut energy costs are allowed to keep 90 percent of the savings, says Harrigan.

Karen Kibler, Green Schools program coordinator for Iroquois Central Schools, a 3,000-student district in suburban Buffalo, says the changes in lighting use at four district schools have led to significant savings. Each building started the program in the fall of 1997 and saved 12 to 21 percent on electricity within the first eight months. The average savings was $2,500 per school.

The goal of Green Schools, Kibler says, is to change behavior, a no-cost way to conserve energy. Students learn about the steps schools can take to reduce energy waste, and "energy patrols" monitor how lighting is used, point out when lights are left on unnecessarily and ferret out other examples of waste.

At Iroquois High School, where Kibler is a library media specialist, student auditors took part in the Savings Through Energy Management (STEM) program. The students conducted in-depth studies of how to save energy by being more efficient in the type of lighting and how much lighting is used.

In many cases, schools can reduce the wattage of bulbs they use or replace inefficient incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents.

At one school building, students and teachers decided that the cafeteria had enough natural light from its windows, so the school eliminated the artificial lighting and reduced its electric bill.

"Everything started with education," says Kibler. "We looked at energy consumption and lighting specifically. Teachers, students and maintenance staff are working together."

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