From light bulbs to buses, school district tracking energy costs

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:01

    Warwick — It’s not often that November in Warwick begins with temperatures in the high 60s. But we all know it’s short-lived and soon enough there will be snow and subfreezing temperatures. This year, though, energy costs might be more of a headache than the weather itself. Some predictions have the cost of natural gas increasing by 50 percent, heating oil by 40 percent. Many homeowners are looking for ways to make their homes more energy efficient. Not an easy job, especially if you have a few kids who never turn off the lights or shut the doors. Imagine having to heat 712,000-square feet and keeping after nearly 5,000 kids and adults to shut off the lights? That’s the challenge faced by the Warwick Valley School District. Thomas Gustainis, assistant superintendent for business, said the district has been looking at ways to save energy for several years. Using a grant, the district retained the company Optimized Energy to audit energy use at all the schools and to recommend how to save it. “Everything that consumes energy was audited,” said Gustainis. The district sent out proposals to companies, who in turn sent in their proposals to make the buildings more energy efficient. The district went with Johnson Controls, Inc., a company that specializes in energy management. The cost was $3 million, which Gustainis said will be entirely covered by energy savings rather than taxpayer dollars. “Johnson Controls guaranteed it,” he said. For the next 15 years (three have already passed), the district will save about $170,000 each year through the actions recommended and performed by Johnson Controls. How did they do that? So what did the district do to improve its energy efficiency? All lighting in the buildings was changed to high-energy performance lighting. All of the boilers were fitted with microtherm controls, that is tiny computers that monitor the turning on and off of the system. “The controls shut off the boilers seconds before it normally would,” said Gustainis. “The heat is still coming out and reaches the programmed temperature, but shutting off a few seconds before it would normally is a more efficient way to maintain the temperature in the buildings.” Schools in other districts that have these controls have shown a 10-15 percent decrease in energy use, Gustainis added. Timers were installed on all of the electric water heaters. The pool’s exhaust fans are now running less, especially when the pool is not in use. Windows are a big item when it comes to energy use. Gustainis said every window in the district has an acrylic film on the inside. This film keeps the heat inside in winter and the cool air inside during the hot weather. The windows at Kings Elementary School also were replaced with high-energy, double-pane windows. Just heating the six schools consumes a tremendous amount of oil and natural gas. Like most homeowners, the district “locks in” prices on electric and gas through EPEX, an energy procurement company the district has worked with for two years. Warwick grouped with other districts in Orange County to form an energy buying pool to get better pricing. “Our goal is to lock in a price so we can meet our budget,” he said. Since most of the buildings have dual fuel systems — meaning they can burn either oil or gas — the district also keeps an eye on the oil prices. School officials usually go with a state contract, but they are not obligated. Gustainis said it would be nice to have a thernostat in each classroom and be able to decree the temperature in every classroom and office. But that’s not the case because each building is different. Depending on where rooms are in a building, those closer to the heating system may be warmer while those father away may be cooler; others are farther away and cooler. Because of the building by building differences - Park Avenue, for instance, has a third floor, it’s left to the school principal to determine what’s comfortable. Changing habits Busing more than 4,000 kids to school can also eat a lot of energy. This year, the district consolidated some bus stops in neighborhoods to eliminate some of the stopping and starting that eats even more fuel than just driving across Warwick roads. “It’s logic,” said Gustainis. “Accelerating versus cruising. The fewer stops you make, the less gas you will use.” And, as reported last week in The Warwick Advertiser, the district is adding used vegetable oil to dilute the diesel fuel in its buses. Gustainis said the engine manufacturer reported that up to 20 percent of the fuel may be the vegetable oil additive without compromising safety or efficiency, saving more money from the energy budget. “For every gallon of vegetable oil we use, we save that much in diesel,” he said. But there is always the human factor. As Gustainis noted, everyone needs to develop the right attitude if the effort to save energy is going to be successful. “We have to educate children and adults to turn off lights when the room will be empty,” he said. “We encourage everyone to keep the classroom doors closed, keeping the heat in.” The district has even put stickers on the light switches, reminding everyone to shut off the lights. After school activities will be kept to certain zones in schools so that the entire building doesn’t have to be heated, he added. Turning off computers at the end of the day will help save some electricity, too. “We try to be proactive and plan ahead in such a volatile market to stabilize these costs,” he said. “We challenge our staff and students to come up with ideas. We can mitigate how much is needed by being proactive early on. The sooner you start, the more you save.” This year, the Warwick Valley Central School District has budgeted for: • 205,000 gallons of heating fuel • 32,000 MCF (1,000 cubic feet) gas • 5,615,000 kilowatts of electricity • 142,000 gallons of diesel fuel • 10,000 gallons of gasoline