The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 23, 2012

Athens schools saving big on utilities

By Jean Cole

ATHENS — A decision made three years ago to lower utilities bills, continues to pay off for Athens City Schools.

In 2009, the city school board hired Trane to implement an energy-saving program at all city schools.

The savings was to be accomplished through various lighting, heating and air-conditioning upgrades and practices. Trane officials predicted, at the time, the schools would see a savings of $219,000 in the first year. As it turned out, city schools exceeded the prediction. In the following year, the schools saved $260,000. Trane officials told city school board members last week that in the third year of the program, city schools saved $284,310 between September 2011 and August 2012.

“We had good buy-in from the principals at the schools and from Dr. Bridges,” Art Riley of Trane told school board members. “Lights make up about 40 percent of the utility bill, and this is an increase (in savings) of $30,000 to $40,000 over the previous year.”

Board President Russell Johnson asked why Cowart Elementary School, which saw the least amount of savings the previous year, saved the most of any of the schools this past year.

Riley said it was because the board hired someone full time to monitor and adjust the systems, a process that can even be accomplished remotely via computer. Timing is the key to most of the savings.

For example, Riley said when no one is in the schools the lights are automatically shut off at a specific time. In the past, a school system would have to rely on a person remembering to turn them off. Riley also credited Finance Director Barry Hamilton with devising a money-saving method of cleaning schools and waxing floors in the summer.

Hamilton explained after the meeting that the school system now pools its janitors and maintenance workers in the summer, sending them as a team to one school at a time to perform all work needed to prepare for the new school year. The work includes, among other things, moving desks to hallways, cleaning walls, floors and furniture, painting walls, waxing floors, and other routine annual maintenance.

“They do a great job and they get a school done in about seven days,” Hamilton said, crediting school employees. The approach is not unlike forming a sort of janitorial “A” team to get the job done.

Air conditioning and lighting is turned on at the school while the workers achieve these tasks, Hamilton said. When the wax on the floors dries and the furniture is put back in place, the lights and air conditioning are shut off and the team moves to another school to repeat the process. By taking this approach, the schools save on air conditioning and lighting costs.

While the focus is on saving on utilities costs, Hamilton said school officials also want the buildings to be comfortable during the school year.

“If someone calls and says it is too cold in the winter, we make adjustments,” he said. “We want to save money but we want our employees and students to be comfortable.”

Hamilton said the schools also save on power by staggering the startup of heating and air-conditioning units. He said when heat is turned on in all the buildings at the same time, it costs more than if the heat is turned on at different times.

When asked if he thought county schools could save in the same manner, Hamilton said it might prove difficult because they are more spread out.

County schools have looked for ways to cut utilities costs over the past few years. For example, former Limestone County Schools Superintendent Barry Carroll and Maintenance Director Steve Wallace initiated savings by devising a plan that required teachers at all schools to remove individual refrigerators, microwave ovens and other appliances from their rooms. At the time, schools statewide were facing a third year of state budget cuts and money was scarce. The initiative, backed by the school board, was unpopular but it saved $24,600 in just three months.