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Searching for Savings

By Renee Gryzkewicz - January 2004 - Design & Construction


While equipment efficiency remains an essential component of controlling utility expenses, more organizations also are buying into the importance of cost-focused maintenance management. Organizations that can combine these two components are more likely to achieve maximum savings.

As a result of management’s vision and the maintenance department’s expertise, the Portland School District is now reaping cost-saving benefits estimated to be about $9 million over the past eight years.

In 1990, the district undertook a series of aggressive measures to enhance the energy efficiency in its 100 schools and better control its utility costs. It launched energy-efficiency program and retrofit projects designed to maintain energy use and costs at the lowest level possible without compromising the schools’ learning environment.

“We needed to look at the best ways to conserve energy,” says Randall Johnston, the district’s manager of maintenance work forces. “Our (department’s) job included providing expertise from the people who know these systems better than anyone else regarding the underground tanks, what boilers required the most emergency calls, and what burners were the most inefficient.”

Time to Retrofit

At the time the district’s efforts began, much of the technology in its schools was severely outdated. Antiquated HVAC systems, inadequate electrical wiring and other infrastructure problems plagued the schools. As a result, the district’s energy use had been increasing by about 5 percent per year and was higher than the average for schools.

“The energy systems that ran these buildings were pretty old technology,” says Patrick Wolfe, the district’s manager of health and safety, who joined the district in 1995 to help spearhead its resource conservation efforts.

Not surprisingly, the maintenance department’s struggled to keep old equipment functional over the years. Maintenance and repair costs had risen for many of the buildings, which were not constructed for energy efficiency nor meant to meet the demands of modern education.

“We always managed to maintain our facilities well, but there weren’t any equipment improvements being done,” Wolfe says, adding that the costs of maintaining the old systems eventually caught up with the district’s annual budget. “We could no longer afford the maintenance that these systems required.” Rising energy costs also drove the retrofit program.

“Because of increased budgets constraints and rising utility costs, we felt we needed to be proactive,” he says. On top of all of these challenges, budget cuts were forcing the district to significantly reduce its maintenance staff. Since 1990, the department has shrunk from 180 full-time employees to 62.

“Many of our maintenance staff worked for the school district for several years,” Wolfe says. “They knew the equipment very well. As long as the maintenance force was around, we were able to maintain the old systems.” With a reduced staff, however, the district desperately needed more efficient technology that required less maintenance.

The Maintenance Component

Johnston and his staff played a critical role in guiding and shaping the retrofit project, beginning with a thorough assessment of each building’s needs and related equipment and maintenance costs, which took more than a year to complete. This process required examining all HVAC and electrical equipment and prioritizing the highest-priority areas.

The maintenance staff completed much of the assessment by reviewing past work orders.

“We could track the number of repairs and predict work,” Johnston says. “This was critical in discovering what would provide the biggest payback first.”

Adds Wolfe, “The maintenance crews were invaluable in helping us understand what the biggest problem areas were.” Following the assessment, the maintenance staff reviewed design plans and specifications, and met with manufacturers to discuss equipment and technology options.

Wolfe says it is not usual business for the maintenance crew to talk about design elements. In this case, however, the department’s involvement was critical, as they were the most qualified in specifying products that would perform best.

“It really saved us money in the end,” Wolfe says.

The Retrofit Challenge

“The age of the buildings was one of our biggest challenges in determining the technology that would work best,” Johnston says. Of the district’s 100 schools, only one is less than 30 years old. One-half of the schools are more than 50 years old, and 15 are more than 80 years old. Most of the schools’ boilers used outdated technology.

“We had more than 200 boilers, and about 30 to 40 percent of them used oil,” Johnston says. The district began converting these boilers. “Converting them to gas saved us a lot of money by eliminating the cost of cleaning tubes, which we use to do once of week, and reducing the number of emergency calls.” Johnston says.

Eventually, all of the schools’ oil boilers will be converted to gas. Because of budget constraints — the district now pays $100,000-$180,000 to retrofit a boiler, Wolfe says — the district can afford to convert only three to four boilers every year, and about 75 percent of the oil boilers still must be converted.

In making product and equipment recommendations, the maintenance department has been instrumental in standardizing technology throughout the district, Wolfe says. Prior to the retrofits began, energy-related technology throughout the district was anything but standardized. For example, each building’s boiler had a different type of burner.

“We began standardizing our burners and were able to get a unit price through the distributor,” Johnston says.

When it came time to install new systems, the district relied on both maintenance employees and contractors to complete the work. Contractors handled the larger projects, including replacing 98,000 light fixtures that had magnetic ballasts.

In that particular project, the district was extremely cautious about properly discarding the ballasts.

“We were very environmentally concerned and careful that the ballasts were collected and discarded in an environmentally safe way,” Wolfe says. By 1997, all but eight schools of the district’s 100 schools had new energy-management systems.

“We were able to control for the boiler schedules for different zones,” he says. “We also did some of the outside lighting computerized controls.”

New Management Focus

The district did more than just upgrade its systems and technology to control utility costs. It also revamped its management structure. For example, the district focused on improving its resource conservation management.

Wolfe was hired in 1995 to serve as the district’s resource conservation manager (RCM) to track utility costs, and he held that position for four years. That position now helps the district save $400,000 a year, he says.

The maintenance department continues to play a vital role in controlling costs by identifying questionable expenses. In December 2003, Tony Carter, the district’s plumbing shop foreman, and Nancy Bond, the district’s current RCM, were recognized for saving the organization $18,000 in two months.

The district’s accounts payable department noticed a drastic spike in the water and sewage bill for three schools. Carter visited the schools to investigate, and upon reviewing work orders, he tied the billing increase to a leak that already had been fixed. The district showed repair documentation to the city’s water and sewage department, which credited the district.

The Bottom Line

To date, the district has spent $8 million on energy retrofits. Wolfe says the district has saved $9 million over the past eight years in combined savings and avoided costs.

“We estimate that we currently save $2 for every dollar that has been spent on the retrofit,” he says. “We cut our overall utility cost by 20 percent.” He adds that, thanks to a reduction in maintenance and utility costs in one year, the district was able to transfer $750 to its general fund budget, which directly funds educational programs.

Also, as a result of enhancing energy efficiency, Wolfe says the district has been able to keep its annual electricity consumption flat, even with the addition of 4,000 computers in classrooms. The new energy-management technology also allows the district to maintain its buildings at the same level, even with a smaller maintenance staff.

The costs and effort dedicated to the retrofit was well worth it, say Pam Brown, the district’s director of facilities and asset management. She encourages others planning such a retrofit to talk with peers who have undertaken similar projects. Finding ways to pay for the retrofit was a real challenge, Brown says.

“You never have all the funding you want,” Brown says, adding that “no matter what, don’t get discouraged and give up.”

Says Wolfe, “If you are creative, persistent and methodical, you can do a lot with very little.”





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