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Building efficiency at area schools: Costly, but effective?

Facility director Jason Splett shows how controls to monitor the heating and cooling of district buildings can be done via his cellphone. (Nick Longworth / Enterprise)

By Nick Longworth

The weather this winter has been cold, really cold. This is a phrase that is likely to surprise no one.

In fact, much of the state has experienced 42 days in which the weather has dipped below zero degrees this year. Three more days below zero and this winter becomes one of the top ten coldest ever recorded in state history. Even as it stands, it won’t be far off from the record number 60 days below zero recorded in the winter of 1874-1875.

Fighting against the yearly elements of adversarial (albeit expected) weather, each year school districts are presented with the task of finding a balance between comfort and costs. As the temperatures remain really low, each school district must fight to keep their costs from soaring sky high.

Between Park Rapids, Menahga and Nevis there lies three different school districts all implementing different efficiency procedures, products and systems throughout their buildings. In recent years, both Park Rapids and Menahga have hired third party companies to come in and streamline their operations, while making upgrades and improvements as well.

Nevis, however, has followed a much more autonomous regiment of monitoring and advising their own building on how to be as efficient as possible.

In 2008, Park Rapids entered into a 15-year agreement with a company called Johnson Controls.

According to their website, Johnson Controls delivers products, services and solutions that increase energy efficiency and lowers operating costs in buildings for more than one million customers. Their 15-year “performance contract” cost the district $1,422,360 while offering a guaranteed projected savings of $2,981,183 over the period. The total cost of all the performance contract upgrades included in the contract at the end of the 15 years is $2,016,717.

Documents provided by building manager Jason Splett showed that for over $2 million price tag, the district received lighting system improvements, boiler plant replacements (including installing three high efficiency hot water boilers), water conservation improvements and building automation improvements.

“We did a building efficiency upgrade mainly at the high school, although some was at Century. The high school portion received 18 all new air handling units. Along with that, boilers were changed out for high efficiency boilers and water heaters. We also did some roofing. Although the purpose of the roof wasn’t energy efficiency, it did have an impact on our usage, the high school now has the best roofing system that money can buy,” Splett said.

The remainder of the project total was a steeper price tag.

A final $10,017,640 was spent on the following components of the project demolition of existing ceilings, light fixtures, ductwork, steam piping, purchase and installing new air handlers, install air conditioning in media center, auditorium, band/choir, admin offices, computer labs and commons, new hot water piping from the boilers to the air handling units, electrical work to accommodate new and existing components, replacing ceiling grid and tile and removing and replacing existing aluminum entrance doors

“We went through the Century School and upgraded the controls and found that the building had been pulling in too much outdoor air. It really helped us a lot with efficiency by replacing the outdoor air controls and getting everything working as efficiently as possible. The machines were working too hard before. Look at when it’s 30 below out, if you’re pulling in too much outdoor air, then you’re trying to heat that outdoor air up and it can be counter-productive,” Splett said.

“Conversely, at the high school we were at the minimum for the amount of air we were bringing in before. Now we are right within the guidelines of distributing it through the building. It was twofold: its energy efficiency and its indoor air quality. There is a balance that you want to find to distribute the air at an efficient and comfortable temperature. By bringing in the proper amounts of fresh air, we are able to achieve health benefits like keeping students more awake and at the top of their game, but also not waste heat” Splett said.

Similarly, in 2007 The Menahga School District entered into a 15-year, $1.56 million energy service agreement with Energy Services Group.

Like Johnson Controls, the agreement guaranteed the district will get back $1.1 million in energy savings over that time through improvements made during the project, of which included: digitizing the heating and cooling systems, improvements in efficiency with vending machines, lighting and mechanical systems, improved electrical systems, structural improvements and improving the ventilation throughout the entire building.

“The new system gives staff more control over the comfort level. It is also more efficient as a result of the less work needed to control air flow, exchange insulation and mechanical efficiency; it took care of a lot of areas of our building that were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. In June, we also received an Energy Star certification from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which rewards organizations who have demonstrated superior performance in energy efficiency,” said Superintendent Mary Klamm.

“Of course, this winter has been a tough one because of the really cold temperatures - but everyone is dealing with that. I am just glad our school board had the foresight and wisdom to make our building as energy efficient as possible - or it could have been much more expensive to stay warm. I can tell you that the complaints about uneven heating and rooms being too cold during the winter have gone down immensely since 2010,” Klamm said.

Menahga building manager Charlie Dormanen has seen a noticeable before and after difference in the new equipment installed.

“Prior to the system being installed in 2008, I would arrive in the morning to manually turn everything on, and then off again at the end of the day. Now the lighting has a censor that after a while the lights will go off instead of having to manually shut them off, which saves a lot of energy. I still physically need to check many things, but it helps pinpoint problems. I can pinpoint on the computer and check out a closer area instead of every individual thermostat. The whole process has been made much more efficient,” said Dormanen, who has been the building and grounds supervisor in charge of heating, cooling and cleanliness for the past 12 years.

“For the health of the students I think it was also a necessary improvement. We’re bringing in fresh air and exchanging air so we haven’t had a lot of sick days. We used to have unit ventilators that were smaller units no bigger than my desk and wouldn’t give out enough airflow. Now with the new duct work and bringing in fresh air, it’s a healthier environment for learning,” Dormanen said.

Both districts so far have reported savings outperforming expectations.

“We completed year three of the controls being fully implemented on August 14, 2013. At that point we were guaranteed to save $54,938. It was documented we had saved $55,168 - so basically we are right on track,” Klamm said.

Splett recorded similar results.

“At this point the school district is saving a significant amount more than the yearly guarantee. Through year 3 we have exceeded the guaranteed amount projected by $245,001. If we can keep this trend we will save an extra 1.25 million over the course of 15 years,” Splett said.

Nevis, on the other hand, chooses to handle their heating and cooling costs on their own. On the surface, the numbers in which the other two districts are saving appear fruitful. However, Nevis Superintendent Steve Rassier points out that these numbers are often generated by the company hired outside of the district, forcing the district to rely solely on the same people they have already agreed to pay for the actual savings validity.

Rassier has mixed feelings about the idea of hiring a third party company to monitor their performance and cost effectiveness.

“We have a night and a day cycle to maintain heating efficiency. We really haven’t done any specific improvements in regards to efficiency. It has been a lengthy, cold winter and we have also increased our building size, which raises our heating cost percent, so our usage is up slightly,” said Rassier.

Nevis heats their school on fuel oil, rather than hot water or steam methods that are used at Park Rapids and Menahga.

“Park Rapids did a big project recently. There are several performance contract service providers. Some of those things, we would like to do the same things maybe in time. We would like to upgrade our heating to all hot-water heat in the future. But I think we would do the improvements on our own. That third party has a fee too. Instead of entangling yourself with one of these energy companies for 15 years; my gut feeling is we would do the bidding on our own,” Rassier said.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
(218) 732-3364