Lowering Energy Costs for Schools

Thursday, November 8, 2012

By Kate Malott, Iowa NSF EPSCoR

Two members of the Iowa NSF EPSCoR energy utilization platform, Craig Just and Melissa Ward, are working with Columbus Community School District in Columbus Junction, Iowa to decrease energy consumption in the school and promote energy efficiency awareness in the community. The University of Iowa researchers are creating “community laboratories” where students, families, and community leaders would feel comfortable coming to learn about energy efficiency. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Ward is a research associate.

They now have the funding to make improvements in those schools to make them more energy efficient. With the ultimate goal of lowering the district’s energy spending, the project is focused on certain parts of the Columbus Community High School, such as the library and student commons/cafeteria area. Proposed upgrades to these spaces could also provide data that can be used to educate students about energy efficiency.

LED Lighting and Control Shades

“It’s our job to be here in the early stages,” Just said. “One of the things about the library that we’ve noticed is when the lights are on, they have terrible lighting and this place is not well lit. The problem is with all the sprayed on texture, asbestos, we can’t really remove the lights or fixtures themselves, so we’re going to upgrade and put in better LED bulbs. This is one of the places where we do want to spend some of our funds.” The use of appropriate solar-adaptive shading is a second solution to increase efficiency that will support the projects mission. “Another thing we’re interested in--and initial estimates show they can save about 40 percent of their cost--is the use of control shades that open and close when they get natural light in when they need it.”

Just and Ward are making trips to Columbus Junction, to work on outreach and collecting data on the building’s envelope. With the help of  Iowa NSF EPSCoR, the Iowa Power Fund is funding the purchase of thermal imaging cameras to diagnose energy efficiencies in the building. “You can see the picture of the thermal images with the digital picture around it, and then you can scan for places where heat is coming in,” Just said.

Iowa NSF EPSCoR has provided the project with about $135,000 to do energy improvements in schools and other buildings to turn them into living learning labs. “As we do renovations, we’re going to document them, and then we’ll try to educate people on what they might do in their own homes that are similar and certainly teach the students through various learning modules how to design such buildings in the future if they choose a career in those types of fields, or for sure in their own homes in the future,” Just said. Students can make energy efficiency approachable at home, thinking about light bulbs, and talking about the importance of conserving, Ward explained.

Engineers and Community Leaders

Ward assists Just on his many projects.  “I help out with outreach, assessment and evaluation, and help manage the project at Columbus Junction,” Ward said, adding that she enjoys balancing engineering with education.  “It’s been a blast,” she said describing her work on outreach grants.

Also working on the project is Todd Heck, the technical coordinator and building and grounds director for the Columbus Community School District. He explained that budgets for most schools are very tight and that energy consumption is one of the budget items that can be somewhat monitored and controlled. In charge of overseeing the use of technology and energy use in all Columbus Community schools, Heck said, “We’re a small school with limited resources and the University of Iowa brings a wide variety of resources, with that comes ideas that we had not even considered.”

“The district’s main goal, besides the great energy efficiencies, is showing our community the efforts we take to use their tax dollars in the best way possible. It also brings the benefit for our students, to learn how technology can be used to provide feedback on how changes they make to save energy will impact the school,” Heck said.

The Columbus Community School District project is working with Van Meter Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, an electrical and mechanical distributor of supplies, services and solutions. The company will assist on recommendations, which Just and Ward will present to Heck, the Superintendent, and other board members. “I want there to be a reasonable rate of return on that investment, because I don't want this to be viewed as free money we use for improvements. There should be somewhere around a 3 to 5 year payback time. I want to be a good example of how wise choices for doing energy efficiency improvement in buildings can then create benefits later on. You can free up that ‘energy capital’ to have more computers, better lighting, or more teachers,” Just said.