Don’t Break for the Winter

Prepare Now for Spring Performance, Efficiency

School administrators who are used to working with a tight budget are applying even greater pressure to cut operations costs and have placed cost-cutting at the top of every department’s to-do list this winter as the economy continues to slow. 

Cost-cutting measures go hand in hand with economic downturns, and schools are adjusting their budgets accordingly. Ironically, facilities management, a department that is often one of the first to receive budget cuts, has perhaps the greatest potential to return value to schools heading into the spring months.

If schools defer upgrades and capital improvement projects due to budget constraints, they need to make do with their current systems. There are several ways for schools to make older systems run more efficiently, saving the school capital, reducing risk of failure and maintaining environmental health. Saving a small percentage on energy costs creates capital to pay for essentials, such as technology, teacher salaries and supplies.

Despite cost-cutting measures, a silver lining remains: Most public school districts created their 2009 fiscal year budgets during last summer when oil prices were at record highs. School heating budgets are likely under spent following a decrease in oil prices.

Seasonal Planning

By maximizing building operations, schools can conserve energy, resources and money using maintenance programs and design and construction concepts that improve a building’s function. A school renovation that incorporates a high-performance design can net a 20 percent to 30 percent savings each year on utility costs, according to the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council.

However, making a school building more efficient does not require new energy systems. Scheduled maintenance of cooling systems during the winter can maximize efficiency with current systems. Deferring maintenance places crucial assets at risk for more-extensive damages and costlier repairs in the future.

Beyond helping schools save money, research shows that energy-efficient schools can bolster academic performance and improve the health of occupants. More than 53 million children and about 6 million adults (one in five individuals) spend a portion of their day inside school buildings. A significant number of students and teachers struggle with distractions including noise, glare, mildew, lack of fresh air and hot or cold temperatures.

During the winter, school administrators should identify major repairs that need to be done to heating equipment while planning for spring maintenance and renovation matters and any building upgrades scheduled in the summer. Officials should start by reviewing and documenting last season’s energy performance of building equipment and target areas for efficiency improvements.

Typically, mid-winter planning includes preparing to service or renovate building systems such as controls, lighting, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, flooring and ceiling. Much of this work can be completed in conjunction with a school’s regular winter servicing. 

Energy audits and other forms of light maintenance can deliver effective energy management to a school and its surrounding community.

Once the snow melts away, maintenance and renovation efforts will move full-speed ahead. Here are some key initiatives that should top all school facility managers’ lists as their buildings emerge from the winter season:

• Repair roof leaks and other sources of unwanted moisture
• Repair any moisture-damaged ceiling tiles
• Replace and maintain filters regularly
• Make sure all supply and return vents are clean and not blocked
• Ensure drain pans properly drain
• Check for piping damage and inspect condensate traps
• Clean cooling and heating coils as necessary, you can read more if you want to learn more about this.
• Inspect plumbing and conduct any repairs immediately
• Identify the best spring operating settings and setback temperatures for the HVAC system according to occupancy schedules.

There are also a variety of quick energy conservation measures that can bolster the above maintenance efforts:

• Tune boiler burners to optimize for energy efficiency
• Replace steam traps for steam heating systems
• Upgrade building controls and implement new energy-efficient control strategies for heating and cooling systems
• Install variable speed drives wherever possible to leverage savings for partial load operation
If energy budgets are currently under spent due to the recent fall of prices for commodities used for winter heating, school administrators should consider shifting the funds to energy efficiency upgrades.

Whether a school benefits from a fuel adjustment in its regular billing or a straight rate reduction, investing the surplus now will continue to pay dividends in the future by reducing utility expenses as well as improving the learning environment for both students and teachers.

Lou Ronsivalli is service offer product management leader for the Americas at Trane, a provider of indoor systems and services for schools.