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Cottonwood Heights Journal

High school students learn school district’s energy efficiency saves dollars

Oct 01, 2022 06:06PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Many of Canyons School District’s schools and campuses are as energy and water efficient as possible, that’s what a group of Hillcrest High students recently learned.

During a recent Earth Club meeting, student members learned about the school district’s water and energy management program, subtitled, “The Business of Saving Taxpayer’s Dollars and Leaving an Impressive Legacy for Future Generations.” Then, they had a hands-on opportunity to discover if there were ways it could be better.

“What I would like is for you to measure how we can retain heat or more efficiently reduce our need for heat in this (STEM) building and then, identify the cheapest upgrades and start finding grants that we can start modifying this building to meet some improved level of efficiency,” Hillcrest Earth Club adviser Jake Flanigan challenged students.

Hillcrest High senior Sofia Moeinvaziri was one of those students.

“It’s been really eye-opening and beneficial to learn not only what we’re doing to become more efficient in our water and energy use, but the why’s and how’s behind it and how we can become more proactive,” she said.

During the presentation, students learned that Canyons’ water efficiency program began in 2016, when District Energy Specialist Chris Eppler introduced the Cal Poly’s auditing water and analyzing precipitation rates program. He predicted, with the help of his staff and student interns, the school district could save about 25 million gallons of water.

“We ended up saving a documented 20 million gallons,” he said. “Our meter was out at a school so we couldn’t document all the water we saved, but I’m very confident we ended up saving more than what we projected.”

The program is designed to water the area to meet plants’ needs, but not waste water through runoff or overspray.

“It’s very straightforward and it’s actually very simple,” Eppler said. “What we do is go out and document how many sprinkler heads we have, what type of heads they are and what is the precipitation rate and the zone precipitation rate. Then, we’re able to calculate how to operate as efficiently as we possibly can. I would venture to say we may be the only school district doing this and one of the few in the state of Utah. We can predict, based on the summer, how much water we need and show how much we actually use.”

The program began with a grant from a water conservancy district, he said.

“Now the thing people say is ‘How much do you save now?’ The savings aren’t as great anymore because we’re watering the way we’re supposed to, so it’s more of a maintenance level and the savings is just put right back into the program,” he said, adding that there have been circumstances such as rebuilds of schools and an increase of water fees by Sandy City that have factored into the equation.

Even with that, his handful of summer student interns projected water usage in 2020-21 would total more than 113 million gallons for the middle schools alone; however, they were still able to consume less, at 88.5 million. During that same time period, elementary schools used 4 million gallons less than projected as well.

While the high school playing fields are preferred to be green, Eppler said they have reduced water consumption to 65% in other areas, such as the non-playing areas.

“The grounds for children stay in a healthy condition, but we’re sacrificing in other areas to stay within the governor’s parameters,” he said. “We know those big fields consume huge amounts of water and there’s no way of getting around that. But what we try to do is put the correct amount of water in the ground and do that during the less hot times. The amount of watering stays the same, but maybe it’s the frequency and the time of year that change.”

Canyons has been recognized as a Utah Energy Pioneer in 2015 for its leadership and commitment to energy conservation by the Utah Association of Energy Engineers and again in 2017, by Gov. Gary Herbert’s Office of Energy Development as a Utah Energy Pioneer.

Eppler, who is a certified irrigation designer, contractor and auditor as well as an energy engineer, said that his team, including Brandon Wolf, Daniel Bray and Robynn Lefler, have helped Canyons save money in its gas and electricity usage as well. 

At a recorded high in 2013-14, Canyons paid $1.29 per square foot for natural gas, electricity, sewer and water. During the 2019-20 (mostly pre-pandemic) year, that same cost was down to 93 cents.

“This doesn’t take into consideration that we’ve increased the size of our buildings by 600,000 square feet (excluding the recent rebuilds of Brighton and Hillcrest high schools, which weren’t completed at that time) or 12% or that Rocky Mountain Power has increased their rates by about 10%,” Eppler said.

He added overall there also has been more usage with climate change resulting in warmer temperatures and less rain and snow.

“We actually did really well through 2019, then with COVID, we had to run our fans all the time and that changed our efficiency,” Eppler said, although the rates still are only a few cents up from pre-pandemic periods.

He said that with newer, upgraded equipment, the schools are more efficient.

With the recent rebuild of Hillcrest, students learned that 10 new condensing boilers, which are only heated up to 120 degrees, replaced two larger steam boilers that heated water to 160 degrees.

“What this means is that now all the water goes into a main line and the temperature of the return water that comes back dictates whether we need to bring on another boiler,” he said. “By using one boiler to heat instead of two, it has saved Canyons HVAC dollars and energy. When we inherited the schools back from Jordan School District, it was terrible. Our usage looked like it was a runaway freight train.”

Sometimes, when a building is modified, Eppler said, it can throw the systems off.

“What ruins it is when they start subdividing the rooms, knocking down walls, adding walls. Technically, then they need a rebalance in rooms so that the air matches what is required. But instead, people start getting creative. At Bell View (Elementary) last year, where the principal’s office was once much larger, it was subdivided, but they didn’t move the ducts; so the principal was getting blown to death and was getting twice as much air and freezing, while everyone else was hot,” he said.

In some cases, adjustments can be made to help with the usage. Eppler illustrated the improvements at Park Lane, an elementary that has not been rebuilt. 

“There has been a 70% improvement at Park Lane,” he said. “When I came here, we recommissioned the programming of the HVAC system. In a nutshell, buildings were probably running 24/7 and we basically started running it when people are there and set a temperature range and that allowed for it not to be constantly cooling and heating. Now with the new schools, we can control the temperature in rooms, and in some schools, we have zones we can cool or heat. As those old systems are being replaced, we’ve become smarter and more efficient about the way we are heating and cooling the buildings.”

Eppler has seen marked improvement with newer buildings, such as Butler Elementary improving 44%, Alta View Elementary at 43%, and Midvale Middle at 71% and Mt. Jordan Middle at 70% from their former buildings.

In addition, he said Canyons has saved energy and money by putting intelligent HVAC programming into the buildings’ automated systems, installing LED lighting and educating staff to become more conscientious.

“We’ve reduced cost substantially. It helps the environment because these buildings pollute less. It helps because we’re using less water,” Eppler said. “Our job, we’re in the background, trying to keep our water usage and our energy use down for essentially 50 buildings throughout the district. We’re creating energy-smart and efficient schools that will create an environment to supports student learning through improvements in site selection options, daylighting, roof design and replacement, indoor air quality, lighting, thermal comfort, acoustics and classroom design. These all influence a child’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to teach. The reason I left the private sector was because I wanted to change the world and make this difference in the school system.”