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The Crippling Cost of Energy

As Energy Demand Goes Up and Up, School Utility Bills Follow

Dave Arnold  

There's nothing like that sinking feeling you get after you read a utility bill or fill your car's gas tank.

Shock. Dismay. Disbelief.

The high demand for oil, gas, and other types of fuel and energy has created a financial crisis at home and work. Can you imagine how a superintendent must feel when receiving the school district's fuel bill? They probably want to sit down and cry.

I know I would, especially after hearing about last January's fuel bill where I work -- Brownstown Community School District in Illinois. The fuel bill for that one month was higher than the entire bill for 2004. That hurt.

One Simple Remedy

Is there anything school officials can do? Most districts continually seek ways to reduce energy costs. Some start by hiring engineers specialized in energy efficiency. These specialists test heating systems and conduct an energy audit. They then present their high-priced recommendations to the superintendent and school board.

Another possible, simpler solution is to consult maintenance staff. They're already on the payroll, yet are often overlooked by nervous superintendents. No one knows the buildings, heating systems, and lighting better than on-site maintenance staff. The following solutions to solving our energy crisis in Brownstown came from custodial and maintenence service workers.

Lower the Ceiling

Older schools are notorious for high ceilings. Brownstown High School's ceilings, for example, are almost 14 feet high. Since heat rises, the heat above the living area is wasted. Therefore, the easiest way to reduce heating costs at Brownstown high is to lower the ceilings. By adding a suspended ceiling, lowered to about nine feet, the cubic feet of the room is reduced by approximately 40 percent. This has the potential of cutting the heating cost for those rooms by as much.

Lighten Up and Save

Lighting is an area that is often overlooked when trying to cut energy costs. You can often upgrade light fixtures and actually get more illumination for less cost. One superintendent I knew thought the only way to cut electrical bills was to shut off the lights as much as possible. We weren't permitted to have any lights on in our hallways or restrooms unless it was dark outside. We still refer to those days as, "the dark ages."

Electric lighting technology is advancing rapidly. What was modern half a decade ago is antiquated now. To save money, check your fixtures at home and school and determine the size of the bulb or fluorescent tube. Then determine the kilowatts it would use in a month.

Most electrical supply companies will furnish you with a book of light fixtures and light bulbs stating the wattage and lumens of each. Staff at these companies or hardware stores will know how to determine the kilowatts. Today, you can get more illumination, save money and conserve energy by using fewer kilowatts.

At Brownstown, maintenance workers did some research into our electrical system. We then applied for an energy grant. It was a good move. We qualified, and were awarded enough funds to change the light fixtures. This doubled our illumination and reduced our electrical consumption by one-third.

We accomplished this on own. Just education support professionals (ESP) doing their job.

Invisible Water Leaks

Another area in which the school's maintenance staff can easily reduce utility costs involves water waste. First, you have to look past visible leaks to those pesky, silent, invisible leaks. For example, a toilet stool that has a tank on it can leak several gallons per day past the rubber flap.

Without close inspection, this leak can go undetected. To spot this subversive leak, you shut the restroom facilities down for a few minutes and add dye to each stool's tank. Presto, the quiet stream becomes highly detectable.

In my own experience, we once found 62 out of 96 stools in need of repair. Also, our school's urinals are an old style that has a flush tank mounted on the wall that runs continually. Once full, it must siphon out and flush as a group. The health department requires that the urinals flush at least once every 15 minutes while school is in session. The problem we had was that they not only flushed while school was in session but 24-7 all year long. That's a lot of wasted water.

Every alternative that we looked into was costly. My simple solution was to add an electrical solenoid valve in the line ahead of the flush tank. We wired that into the restrooms lights.

When the lights were on during school, the system flushed. When school was not in session and the lights were off, we didn't use a drop of water. These two simple fixes cut our school's water bill by half of what it was the previous year.

Added Reward

As utility costs skyrocket, it's sometimes hard to impress the budget, even with cost-saving repairs. But you can't give up, because the kids are watching.

At Brownstown, after repairs were made, elementary school student made "thank you" cards for the maintenance crew. Improved illumination, energy efficiency, and smiles from the kids certainly made our efforts worthwhile.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.