Ongoing Savings

The scene: midwinter in the Midwest. Snow drapes the bare trees that dot the campus of a liberal-arts college. It is early afternoon, but lights burn in many of the windows of the Gothic buildings that surround the quadrangle. Before the vice president are stacks of spreadsheets. We hear him mutter, “If we could just cut that heating bill….”

Another scene: July in the deep South. The parking lot asphalt shimmers. Summer students amble lethargically across the gracious old university campus, some detouring through a lawn sprinkler to cool off. The chief business officer, visible as the door to the administration building swings open, paces the hall outside the president's office. She wrings her hands, mutters something to the effect that “those darn air conditioners eat money” and fans herself with what looks like a balance sheet.

Both of these scenes could be true stories. But education institutions can do more than just fret about energy consumption. They have the means to save money through conservation.

Around the clock

Schools and universities operate long hours. In some applications, they operate around the clock and around the year. Heating, ventilating and, most important, cooling equipment typically is the greatest consumer of energy in any building. Education institutions, just like every other segment of contemporary American society, rely heavily on good HVAC systems for several reasons:

  • Students demand a comfortable atmosphere. They want even, moderate temperatures so they can focus on their studies instead of the climate.

  • The computer technology that is essential to learning requires controlled temperatures to operate efficiently. The wired campus also must be an air-conditioned campus where electronics do not fail due to overheating.

  • Special learning and research applications may call for precise humidity and temperature control: biology and chemistry labs, rare-book rooms and athletic facilities all pose special problems. Universities with medical schools must pay attention to air-flow patterns and air pressure to address infection control.

Maintaining the appropriately conditioned atmosphere does not come cheap. Even when energy prices do not command the headlines, energy bills are significant factors in operating costs. Short of installing windmills, can an education institution cut energy use without risking discomfort, equipment breakdown or research problems? Energy conservation is a real resource, too often overlooked because it is too obvious.

Most buildings waste considerable amounts of energy. That waste is retrievable, given some practical thinking and action.

What causes energy waste? Three culprits that can be blamed for energy waste: problems in operations cause roughly one-sixth of the energy loss; problems in maintenance explain another third; and problems in building systems and the building itself account for one-half.

How do schools find these sources of energy waste? Most facility managers are conscientious about maintenance and efficiency in operations and assume that the structure and its systems are givens. Seldom, however, do they look at their assignment through an energy-conscious lens. How to improve maintenance, how to upgrade operations and how to optimize building systems and the building itself are challenges best assigned to professionals experienced in analyzing the energy patterns in existing buildings.

Steps to remedies

A total building audit is the best first step toward recovering energy waste. The audit should be performed by a professional engineer with skills in energy engineering and knowledge of the operation and behavior of HVAC systems. The audit will reveal an array of opportunities for saving energy. Typically, the energy savings gained through improvements in operations and maintenance will save more money than the cost of the audit. The audit cost is a one-time cost; the savings are immediate and ongoing.

Operations problems can relate to inappropriate use of equipment. For instance, the HVAC system may have an outside air economizer, but it is not in use or is used less than it could be. Or perhaps there are unoccupied areas of the facility that are heated or cooled unnecessarily, or there are timing issues in conditioning areas of the building.

School scheduling can be a challenge. Multiple variables are involved in moving students and teachers from classroom to classroom, juggling seminars and large lecture classes, and managing all the logistics of classes from early morning to late at night. Classroom and lecture hall scheduling should follow patterns that take energy use into consideration. For instance, if Room 2-A is used on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and heated or cooled Monday through Friday, a conscientious scheduler will find a way to place some other activity there on Tuesdays and Thursdays or in some other way conform operations to a sensible energy pattern. This adaptation should never interfere with the academic program, and it does not need to. Good communication among all concerned will ensure that energy and academic goals are served equally well.

Maintenance problems can be small, overlooked tasks (unchanged filters, coils that need cleaning) that cause significant energy waste in the aggregate. Or they can be big problems: maintenance simply not done, or done incorrectly by a technician with inadequate training. There often is no way to know whether maintenance workers are performing the assigned tasks or how competently they are being performed. Most equipment will keep operating for some time even when not properly maintained, but it will consume excessive energy and perform less efficiently. It is easy to assume that any maintenance is good maintenance. If there are technicians who report to the job regularly, seem to make a real effort and equipment does not break down with unreasonable frequency, then some people assume the building is running efficiently.

But good maintenance needs to have a much more solid basis. Good maintenance must be well-planned by persons who know and understand the specific equipment involved. It must be well-executed by technicians who have been successfully trained and well-supervised. It must be monitored through a system that tracks activity and measures quality.

As already noted, the savings that can be realized through changes in operations and maintenance usually will pay for the audit. Those savings can be achieved at low cost and sometimes even at no cost. Once corrections have been made and savings begin, monitoring is necessary to ensure that the corrections are effective over time and that other problems do not arise.

Retrofit remedies

Besides zeroing in on maintenance and operations problems, an audit will disclose problems in building systems and the building envelope. These problems may well require some investment in retrofit to correct. A good audit will calculate the cost of retrofit and then compare it with the benefit in energy savings. Management can decide whether the payback justifies the investment, and can choose to use the quick return measures first. By timing retrofit action so that short payback measures happen first, energy savings can diminish the overall impact of retrofit cost.

Too often, the average person has a hard time being convinced that conservation makes a difference. Until one takes an objective look at energy use and measures exactly how energy is consumed, that skepticism is understandable. For instance, hotels share many characteristics with academic institutions — with large numbers of people coming and going at all hours, extensive public spaces and high demands on energy. Residence halls are similar to hotels, rented by the semester rather than the night.

A recent audit of a hotel showed the facility was spending a total of $834,000 in annual energy costs, and the audit found practical means to save $148,000, or nearly 18 percent of the bill. To achieve those savings, the hotel would invest $394,000 for a 2.7 year payback and a 38 percent return on investment. The savings amounted to 97 cents per occupied room per day. That figure goes straight to the hotel's bottom line. Moreover, a number of the recommended investments had shorter paybacks, yielding even higher returns on investment.

Where do the savings come from?

The hotel already had installed a state-of-the-art maintenance-management system. Had the audit been conducted in a facility with less command of the maintenance function, it would have found numerous maintenance-related opportunities to save. In this case, the audit focused on operations and retrofit.

Bevington is president and chief executive officer of Servidyne Systems, LLC in Atlanta, which offers engineering services and work-management systems that improve the quality of building environments while lowering operating cost.


▪ $0.64

National median amount (in dollars per square foot) spent on electricity by schools.

▪ 34

Percentage of a school's M&O budget spent on energy and utilities.

▪ $161.09

Average spending per FTE student by colleges and universities on electricity.

▪ 28

Percentage that colleges and universities spend on electricity and other utilities.

Source: American School & University's M&O Cost Studies, 2002

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