Columbia schools cut energy costs

Sunday, December 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:04 a.m. CST, Monday, December 14, 2009

COLUMBIA — With energy costs being a major budgetary concern for Columbia Public Schools, the district has taken some steps toward more efficient energy consumption.

Alan Forbis, the energy manager for the district, said the district received information on Dec. 8 showing that the five elementary schools with new ground source heating and cooling  systems — Benton, Blue Ridge, Fairview, Parkade and Russell Boulevard — saved more than $70,000 in utility costs between the 2007-08 and the 2008-09 fiscal years, even with the addition of air conditioning, providing summer school and higher utility rates.

He added that all five elementary schools are now eligible to apply for the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star classification, which recognizes schools committed to efficient energy use.

The district recently switched these five schools to ground source heating and cooling systems in an effort to cut energy costs. These systems use the Earth's more constant temperature to heat the schools in the winter and dissipate heat in the summer, cutting down on heating and cooling costs.

Superintendent Chris Belcher said the district paid for the new systems with money passed from the last bond issue. If a subsequent bond issue expected to go before voters in April passes, the school district might be able to further reduce its energy costs.

Nick Boren, chief operations officer for the district, said the Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee has approved a plan that would put $14.8 million in bond money toward heating, ventilation and air conditioning. This plan has not yet been approved by the School Board.

Boren said this plan would allow the district to install centralized air conditioning systems in the rest of its schools. Nine schools do not have central air, though Boren said many of those buildings have air conditioning in common areas and some have window units.

Boren also said that if the bond issue is approved, the district might be able to eliminate up to 57 of its 158 trailers by building new schools. The district hopes to cut 16 trailer classrooms by opening Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary; another elementary school would take care of 16 more, and a new high school could eliminate another 25.

Forbis said that, due to the different construction of trailers, it can cost about 50 percent more to heat and cool those classrooms.

Belcher said the district has all the normal measures in place to keep the heating and cooling infrastructure working in all buildings, even those with older systems. Problems with the heat, he said, unfortunately but logically only show up when the weather’s cold.

“They don’t break when you’re not using them,” he said.

And there are occasional hiccups in the system. Five classrooms at Hickman High School were without heat for the whole day on Dec. 7, when the high was 37 degrees, according to MU data. Forbis said Hickman’s heat problems appeared to be caused by a malfunctioning smoke alarm in the school's natatorium, or swimming pool area. This smoke alarm tripped the fire alarm for the whole school.  In case of a fire alarm, Forbis said, all heating and cooling units are shut down until the alarm has been reset.

Forbis said it was his understanding that the reset did not occur until after the staff started arriving. The communication to the control systems also went down at this time, and most units were verified locally that they had returned to normal operation. One area was not up and running until late in the afternoon.

Forbis said that the district is unsure whether the smoke alarm contributed to the control problems but that every effort was made to right the system. System and controls were back to normal that evening.

Overall, however, Forbis said the district has few problems with its energy management system; many of the schools use heating and cooling systems that are programmed to maintain comfortable temperatures while the school buildings are occupied. The energy management system allows Forbis to control or even override the systems even when he's away from the office.

During unoccupied times, he said, the set points are lowered for heating and raised for cooling, which helps the district lower utility costs. The boilers, heating and cooling systems are never shut down, but controls are in place to reduce consumption when not needed.

"We're always looking for ways to save money," Forbis said, adding that the district encourages staff and students to conserve energy. "Given the budget constraints, every little bit helps."

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