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Schools: Savings add up as district takes control of thermostats

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The offer was tempting to school district officials who were looking for savings: $7.6 million in reduced energy costs over 10 years.

But the Georgetown County School District turned down an offer last year from an energy audit firm that promised big savings for a share of those savings. The district already had an energy management program under way and thought it could do better on its own.

Using federal stimulus funds, the district brought the last five of its 21 facilities into the system last year, including Waccamaw Elementary and Waccamaw High schools. The first year savings at the elementary school were $20,979. At the high school they were $25,231, said Tony Holcomb, the school district energy manager. The cost of electricity in the current school budget is down 2 percent although rates have gone up.

And the savings will grow as the district uses software to manage energy use at all its buildings.

“Every bit of that savings goes back into our general fund,” Holcomb said.

Schools are turning in budget requests for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and while principals say they will be happy if they can maintain current staff, some would like to see positions restored that were cut in prior budget cycles.

“Hopefully, that money will go back into instruction,” said David Hammel, principal at Waccamaw High.

The district spends about $2.5 million a year on utilities out of a $69.5 million operating budget.

Using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed through the S.C. Energy Office, district crews installed over $97,000 worth of controls on heating and cooling units, kitchen refrigerators and freezers and water heaters at the high school, Holcomb said. Doing the work in-house cut the cost in half.

Electricity use at Waccamaw High dropped by half. The school’s electric bill won’t drop by an equal amount because schools are charged as commercial users, said Bill Crompton, director of facilities for the school district. Rather than paying for the electricity they use, like a residential customer, schools pay based on their peak demand, he said.

To realize the most savings, the schools need to reduce that peak, Crompton said. Once he could have predicted that level would be reached on a cold winter day, but now it’s more difficult.

One feature of the new management software is that it monitors actual use. “We will know the bill before it arrives,” Holcomb said.

He and Crompton said they were skeptical of the pitch made by the consultant last year, not because they didn’t think there were savings to be had, but because they felt the district could manage its own systems.

The work that was completed at the Waccamaw schools and at Georgetown High and Pleasant Hill High with the stimulus funds amounted to the “low hanging fruit” of energy savings, Crompton said.

For instance, the career center at Georgetown High had a cooling system and boilers that ran simultaneously. Water heaters at all the schools were set to 180 degrees to comply with state health regulations, but they also ran all the time.

The building management software, called SchoolDude, programs energy use around the building’s use. If there’s a night game in the gym, the lights and temperature will continue to run. If the game runs into overtime, there’s an override switch to keep them running.

If there’s no game, the system will scale back when school is out. It doesn’t shut down things like heating and cooling, Crompton said. “This is the South. You still have humidity.”

But by reducing the load and staggering the startup times for the systems, the schools are able to chip away at that peak load target.

It took a little while for staff to get used to some of the temperature settings at Waccamaw High, Hammel said. That’s because the system is set up to keep temperatures within a fixed range.

“It’s really worked well,” Hammel said.

One regular complaint at Waccamaw High was that the lights often burned in the parking lot during the daytime. Now in his fifth year at the school, Hammel said it took him four years to discover where the timers for those lights were located.

Now they are part of the energy management system. “I feel a lot more empowered,” he said.

Like many areas of school operations that were taken for granted before the Great Recession, energy is now something everyone is conscious of. “Even little things, like everyone unplugs their electronics, computers and Smart Boards when we go on break,” Hammel said.

Energy management has also allowed the district to become more efficient in how it maintains the systems, cutting down on travel for technicians.

“In a couple of years,” Holcomb said. “They want to be able to control the units from their smartphones.”

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