Energy coordinator makes schools more energy efficient

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 21, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
Mike Austin became the energy coordinator for the Rowan-Salisbury School System before “going green” was in style.
When he started the job a decade ago there were no computer programs to help him analyze the district’s monthly energy consumption. He did all that by hand, drafting his own spreadsheets to keep up with the changes.
“I started out tracking every utility bill and every meter,” he said.
Austin said the first step he took to conserve energy was finding and then eliminating all of the district’s inactive meters that were still drawing electricity.
Next, he started looking for trends. If Austin noticed a spike one month, he’d go out to the building to investigate the culprit, checking for everything from cracked windows to mechanical issues.
“We concentrated on a common sense approach,” he said. “Let’s control waste and operate the best we can.”
Austin said things got a little easier when the district teamed up with EduCon, a Winston-Salem-based energy conservation consulting company, about seven years ago.
The company has software that helps Austin analyze trends, identify potential problems and calculate energy and dollar savings. It also allows him to set controls in each building to make sure the heating and air conditioning units switch to an unoccupied mode when school is out.
In the winter, the thermostat at each school is set to 70 degrees while the building is occupied. When it warms up, the air conditioning is set for 74 degrees.
Austin said those temperatures might not be ideal for everyone, but they are a good middle ground to keep heating and cooling expenses down.
“We don’t want people to be uncomfortable; that’s not part of our energy program,” he said.
Conserving energy, saving money
The school system has saved more than $5 million in the past seven years by working with EduCon.
And 33 of the district’s 39 buildings have received Energy Star designation, scoring a 75 or higher on Environmental Protection Agency’s 1-100 energy performance scale. That score indicates the facility performs better than at least 75 percent of similar buildings nationwide.
Austin said those savings came about in a variety of ways, including replacing older light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs and being vigilant about heating and cooling practices.
Education has also been key. Austin said since he’s not in every building, every day, it’s important that school personnel know what to do. That includes turning off lights at the end of the day, shutting down computers and scheduling after school activities in one portion of the building so that only one zone has to be heated or cooled instead of the entire building.
“We had to get full cooperation in order for this to work,” Austin said. “Whether it’s saving money or the Earth, we have to find out what motivates them to change their habits.”
After educating people, Austin checks in to ensure that people are following through. He visits each school building at least twice a year. During the after hours visit, he conducts an audit to ensure that lights and computers are off and all systems are in proper working order. He leaves the audit with the principal to go over with the staff.
Austin said although the district has already saved a hefty amount, he knows they haven’t reached a plateau just yet.
Last year, every middle and high school gym had their lighting systems upgraded to compact florescent. Austin said the district only had to use half the wattage because the bulbs are so bright. During the installation process, motion sensors were also put in so the lights would go off when the gym is empty. The money for that project came from a $200,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Austin said each soda machine has also had the lights removed, a measure called delamping. That saves about $50 per machine, each year.
As old air conditioning and boiler systems start to die out, Austin said he works to find the replacement that is the most green.
“We can’t afford to take out what we’ve got and replace it with all new stuff, but we can make sure we are getting the most energy efficient replacement,” he said.
Watching the market is another way Austin helps the school system save. With the cost of heating oil going up, he said it’s now cheaper to run things using natural gas.
The district saved an estimated $237,000 last year, but that’s not enough for Austin.
“I’m always looking for ways to save more,” he said.
Ahead of the times
The Rowan-Salisbury School System could be ahead of the times in hiring an energy coordinator.
The Cabarrus County school system hired an energy manager in 2010. That person also works with Kannapolis City Schools. The Davie County school district has yet to hire an energy guru, the facility manager handles those duties.
Austin said some people might doubt the need for a separate energy coordinator, but he said that’s a mistake.
Since that’s his primary duty, Austin said he catches things like meter misreads and water leaks. And he knows what’s typical and when something isn’t right.
“You couldn’t do that if you didn’t have someone concentrating on that and looking at it on a daily basis,” he said.
Energy manager Cliff Mowrer said the Cabarrus County school system reduced its energy costs by about $187,000 last year.
The district is doing many of the same things Rowan-Salisbury schools have already done, replacing light bulbs and educating staff about energy conservation.
“Hopefully with so many budget cuts we can continue with our savings so we can put the money back into the school system,” Mowrer said.
Dr. Judy Grissom, superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, said she’s glad her predecessor recognized the importance of energy efficiency.
“I could not stress enough the importance of energy conservation in our schools,” she said. “Energy conservation is not only about saving funds through responsible monitoring and regulations, but even more so, it’s about leading by example to teach our students the importance of saving our earth’s natural resources.”
Props for Austin
Austin’s works hasn’t gone unnoticed. He was recognized by the state Department of Public Instruction earlier this year as the maintenance employee of the year.
“Mike has coordinated an excellent program for our schools, to have over 30 of our school facilities to qualify in the top 25 percent of the nation for energy efficiency, speaks volumes to the leadership and commitment that Mike makes to our system and ultimately for our students,” Grissom said. “I am very proud of Mike and he is most deserving of this honor and recognition.”
Maintenance director Butch Bivens, Austin’s supervisor, said the he’s watched Austin work tirelessly for the past 10 years so he wasn’t surprised when he received the honor.
“Mike does a super duper job,” he said.
Austin said winning the award was a thrill, but that’s not the best reward he’s received.
“It means a lot to me to be able to save the district money, especially in these tough economic times,” he said. “We can’t change the (utility) rates, but we can change our habits.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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