Saving Energy, Saving Money

energy efficiency


Turning the television to the nightly news in October 1973, you would have seen headlines about OPEC imposing an oil embargo on the U.S. and other western countries and Israel’s war with neighboring countries. The war lasted for 20 days, but its impact and that of a second oil embargo in 1979 is still with us today.

Overnight the price of crude oil increased from $3 to around $5 per barrel, and when OPEC, in early 1974, reduced production, the price increased to around $12 per barrel — then in 1980 to $39.50 (it was as high as $96.77 in 2015). Thus began the era of energy conservation that has led to today’s emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability.

Having walked through more than 1,400 educational facilities in the past 17 years, I still see the remnants of energy conservation actions taken in the mid 1970s in older buildings — blocked-up window openings and reduced daylighting (smaller windows). Before 1973, electricity rates averaged about $0.019/kWh vs. today’s $0.104/kWh (or $0.017/kWh in 1972 dollars). “Energy conservation” echoed through the nation’s educational buildings in the mid 1970s through the 1980s. What these words meant to the occupants was lower light levels, reduced natural light, cooler temperatures in the winter and warmer temperatures in the fall and spring, or, simply stated, “What can you do without or endure to reduce energy use?” Common sense was lacking in the actions taken. For example, blocked-up windows and weather stripping of doors and windows resulted in bad indoor air quality and the need for more outside conditioned air, which resulted in higher energy use.

The emphasis to improving the energy efficiency of buildings and energy systems began in the 1990s, which consequently led to the development of design standards, known as Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED). Common sense was starting to affect the design of buildings, their energy systems and the learning environment.

Today, high-performance design for educational facilities in both new construction and renovations is the rule rather the exception. There are several design standards in use besides LEED: CHPS, Green Globes and local variants of each. Today, common sense is playing a role in the improvement of the energy efficiency of buildings and their systems.


As a result of energy audits over the past decade and a half, two statements were coined and should be remembered when dealing with improving energy efficiency in educational facilities: 1) “The little overlooked energy inefficiencies add up; the big ones are found and corrected,” and 2) “Buildings don’t operate themselves, people do!” With these two statements in mind, I will point out areas where one can improve building efficiencies with ideas of what to do to achieve improvements using common sense.

Many buildings have had lighting upgraded from T12 to T8 to T5 fluorescent lamps, and today to LED. But the difference in light levels resulting from these upgrades may have been overlooked. I know of one instance where the upgrade increased the lighting levels in the classroom significantly. De-lamping the classroom resulted in the removal of 15 lamps. Over the entire district, enough lamps were removed and placed in a warehouse and were reused to supply the district with lamps for several years — a “little thing” amounting to significant savings in both energy and future resources.

Similarly, as I walk the hallways of schools and colleges, I notice the hallways are fully lit, and I am often the only one there. Classes are not typically conducted in hallways, but hallway lights are normally on from 10 to 15 hours a day. Full lighting is needed only one to two hours a day. During the other hours a reduced light level is adequate. This change would result in a significant energy reduction and an overall increase in lighting systems efficiency. It can be accomplished in two ways: 1) Control of lighting in hallways/ hallway segments with the use of occupancy sensors or, 2) Control the lighting according to the class changing schedule or other similar system — another “little thing” with big energy reductions.

Staying on the topic of hallways, here are three more areas where you can improve efficiency. First, many hallways provide walkways for students and staff from one part of the school or campus to another, possibly with windows on one or both sides providing natural daylighting. Controlling this lighting should be by use of daylight sensors during the day. Second, normally outside entrances to gyms, auditoriums and other buildings are well lit, with large window areas that provide significant daylighting. But still, the lights are on. There should be occupancy and/or daylight sensors controlling these lights — again, a “little thing.” Third, if the building is secured by an alarm system, what is the need to have lighting left on when the last person leaves? A secure building with no occupants has no need for lighting. The night lighting circuit should be controlled by the security system. Once the alarm is set, the lights should go off (after a delay), and only turn on and act as a deterrent if that security is breached.

Back to the classrooms, lecture halls, etc. Occupancy and daylight sensors should control the lighting. If possible, only one light switch should be placed at the entrance. Other switches should be placed as far away from the door as possible. Occupancy sensors should also control the HVAC systems, especially the airhandling units for the spaces. There is no reason to have fresh outside air being introduced if no one is in the space. That’s just common sense.


Plug loads can account for up to 25 percent of the electrical usage in a building. Proper use of the equipment — turning it off when not in use or leaving the room for the day — is common sense. When equipment is plugged in but not turned on, energy is still being used. It is called “phantom loads” or “vampire loads.” One way to control phantom loads in a building is with the use of devices you can purchase. They are socket adaptors that completely cut power to the electric devices plugged into them when they’re not in use, thus saving the power that the electric devices would otherwise consume in standby mode. They are available from various vendors at an economical price.

Here is one example. LCD projectors in classrooms are mounted on the ceiling. When the units are turned off they still consume energy. It has been determined that over a year the average projector is used about one hour per day, 365 days a year, or two hours a day during the school year. The “off” time results in about 42 kWh wasted annually if it is not properly controlled or disconnected from electricity when not in use. A custodian can control this with a remote using socket adaptor devices as he or she walks down the hallway at the end of the day. A facility with 24 classrooms can save more than 900 kWh that would have been wasted annually by LCD projectors. A “little thing,” solved by using common sense.

To reduce the impact of phantom loads on the overall energy consumption in a building, when the facility is closed for breaks or vacations, use common sense and unplug electrical equipment. In an effort to control plug loads, the National Electric Code writers are considering requiring that, in new construction, occupancy sensors control 50 percent of all outlets in a room. A similar concept has been in use in Europe for a couple of decades.


Another source of energy inefficiency that unfortunately resides behind closed doors is the source of the electrical energy to the outlets throughout the building. This source is known as a low voltage distribution transformer (LVDT). The inefficiency of the older and minimum-standard LVDT amounts to significant wasted energy. For example, the annual electrical energy wasted in a typical elementary school resulting from an older LVDT is approximately 30,000 kWh.

A new minimum standard for LVDTs has been established by U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and goes into effect on January 1, 2016. More efficient LVDTs meeting and exceeding DOE 2016 minimum standards, with better matching load profiles, are currently being manufactured.

Based on the statement “Buildings don’t operate themselves, people do,” the success of correcting the “little things” will be determined by the effectiveness of an energy awareness program. A successful energy awareness program should be directed at all segments of the school or college’s population — students, instructors and administrators. A student awareness program should be included in daily activities. Energy can be incorporated in science, math, language arts, history, and, of course, sustainability curriculum. The awareness should begin at the lowest level — kindergarten. Starting at this level will ensure that a solid foundation of understanding energy efficiency is developed for their future and the nation’s.

Energy awareness training for instructors and administrators should make them aware, in simple terms, of how building energy systems operate, as well as their limitations. Review those “little things” and ask them to report any other “little things” which appear to be wasting energy. Encourage them to use their common sense. This training should include how their actions can save energy or be contributing to energy waste. Addressing how the waste/energy inefficiency is impacting the resources available will be key in their overall understanding. All administrators and instructional personnel should have at least two training sessions annually.

The purpose of this article is to provide the background, insight and a few ideas about how to improve, maintain and sustain the energy efficiency of educational facilities today and in the future. These ideas and insights will prepare your facilities for achieving the next step in the energy efficiency movement that began in 1973 — Zero Net Energy (ZNE). Common sense should be used and encouraged, and the result will be evident and lasting in your buildings’ improved energy efficiency.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .