How to maximize education while minimizing energy costs

Reza Zare, Partner, Alfa Tech

Cash-strapped California schools are facing a perfect storm. The student population is soaring, there is a demand for improved student performance and thousands of school buildings are in need of repair.
In order to right the ship, school districts will be investing heavily in upcoming years to build or renovate existing schools to enhance learning environments. How schools are designed will not only affect the overall quality of the buildings and operational expenses but also the health and productivity of future generations of students and teachers.
And school districts that incorporate the best in today’s design strategies can provide improved learning environments for students while also paring down electrical costs.
“Today’s educational facilities are providing better built environments for students, teachers and communities by using strategies for design of buildings that meet the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria,” says Reza Zare, a partner with Alfa Tech.
Smart Business spoke with Zare about educational facilities and how they can be enhanced to facilitate learning while being more efficient from an operations perspective.

What is required for a building to meet CHPS or LEED criteria?

CHPS is a self-certified benchmarking system that defines the attributes of a high-performance school. Among other things, the criteria consist of site and materials selection, energy and water efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. CHPS is used by districts to provide high-performance strategies in the design of new buildings, campuses and major modernizations.
LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building was designed and built using strategies designed to achieve high performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, sustainable site development, water savings and materials selection. Certification occurs through the U.S. Green Building Council.
LEED points are awarded on a point scale and credits are weighted to reflect their potential environmental impacts. The point list is as indicated by the U.S. Green Building Council.

What types of financial benefits can be realized from meeting such standards?

The two biggest uses of energy in any building are lighting and HVAC. If you can reduce the lighting, you save a lot of energy. If you can use the natural ventilation system and use free cooling rather than mechanical cooling, you save a lot of energy.
Another financial benefit is standardization of items. Let’s take filtration. Perhaps there are 20 schools in a district and they have an average of 30-40 units per school. If you can standardize filters for all of these schools, you don’t need seven to 10 different types of filters; you can use just one to three types. The same is true with lighting, carpet and others.

What can be done to improve indoor air quality in schools?

It is important to have a good ventilation and filtration system, monitoring devices to monitor air quality and an economizer on the HVAC unit, which can save energy in buildings by using cool outside air as a means of cooling the indoor space. An economizer is particularly well suited for California schools because of the climate. With economizers, it is possible to flush the building, which means you can put the unit 100 percent on outside air and get rid of stagnant air, which can be odorous and contain harmful bacteria. This is typically done overnight, once a month or so, when temperatures are cooler.

Why is daylighting important?

Education case studies have shown that introducing daylighting into a classroom environment can increase a student’s ability to learn and retain new materials.  Students perform better with the introduction of natural light into a space, since they feel as if they are outside, and are more relaxed and focused on the materials being taught.
Daylighting supplements the artificial lighting in the space providing a reduction in the amount of energy required to light the space.  With the use of daylighting controls, consistent lighting levels can be achieved across a classroom or space by dimming lighting fixtures that are closer to the windows and increasing the lighting levels at points further from the windows.

Why are mechanical, electrical and plumbing commissioning important for school construction?

In California, a completed project is checked and approved by the Division of the State Architect (DSA). However, the DSA doesn’t check the operation of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems as a whole to make sure the systems are installed correctly, according to approved documents, controls are correctly programmed, and balancing has been verified, etc.
A third party, or commissioning agent, will verify what the contractors have installed and the overall performance of the systems. We have noticed that contractors have a different approach when a commissioning agent is involved. They know that the third party will monitor and enforce plans and specifications, and verify contractor adherence to design and specifications. I’ve seen projects that were not commissioned, and a year later the HVAC systems aren’t working correctly because no one checked the operation and performance of the system.
Another benefit to having a commissioning agent is that they will review the testing and balancing report, as-built/record drawings, and operations and maintenance manual, including training of the school facility’s personnel. If the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are commissioned, the District will see a benefit in saving operational and maintenance costs.

Reza Zare is a partner with Alfa Tech. Reach him at [email protected] or (408) 487-1221.

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