Four Ways to Leverage an Energy Performance Contract (EPC) to Improve Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) for Your School District
By Rob Sulivent and Dave Newman
Rob Sullivent, PE, CEM, CMVP, CBCP, CDSM
Vice President of Technical Services
By David M. Newman, PE, CEM,LEED-AP, CEA
Vice President of Engineering
When it comes to an energy performance contract, much of the work appears to focus on the facility and indoor air quality (IAQ) measures. But we prefer a term in use by the team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and their Schools for Health initiative: indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Indoor environmental quality treats the outcome of an EPC more holistically, focusing not only on improving the functioning and performance of the building, but on improving the point of the building in the first place: student academic performance. As an added benefit to schools struggling to attract and retain teaching staff, improvements in IEQ can also lead to greater satisfaction among staffers. In fact, many school districts recognize that the more they can do to upgrade their facilities, the more these upgrades correlate to happier teachers and fewer teachers leaving because they’re frustrated with the quality of the learning environment.
Improving Overall Learning Environments
When we manage an EPC as an owner’s rep for a school district, top of mind for us is looking for ways to develop a higher quality learning environment that is more comfortable and conducive to study with an overall goal of providing a better learning environment for both the students and teachers.
At a basic level, many schools struggle to upgrade facilities and provide proper controls for heating and cooling. We recall pulling up to many district buildings in the northeast with their windows open during the winter season, warm air pouring out because there was no other way to keep an extremely overheated classroom comfortable.
Similarly, we’ve worked with districts in the southwest that know by early morning that if they are receiving phone calls from a school in their district that the central A/C chillers haven’t kicked in – it’s going to be a bad day for that school, because they’ve already lost the race against the clock to cool down the facility before the midday heat is at its peak.
In both cases, the solution is often similar – the districts require better control over aging facilities and HVAC components.
So, let’s take a look at what should be on the agenda for school districts across America in 2023 as they assess the shape of their buildings and look to EPCs to assist with increasing IEQ. Many of these key areas are interrelated and a negative impact in any one area can pull down other areas as well.
Four Ways to Leverage an Energy Performance Contract
Ventilation, Heating and Cooling
As an older system struggles to deliver a comfortable environment, perhaps because it is past its end of useful life, we find that the equipment has become less reliable and tends to have more component failures – requiring replacing pumps, compressors, motors and other important parts. In addition, older fans often begin to get noisy and distracting in classrooms. Replacing them with newer units can significantly reduce the background level of noise, making it easier to concentrate – and reducing the amount of time teachers need to shout to be heard – at least over HVAC sounds. Student noise can’t be changed by an EPC.
Building Control Systems
Just like other parts of the system, older temperature controllers tend to be less efficient and the data readings you obtain from those systems, which are supposed to inform the rest of the system how to operate, tend to be less reliable. Therefore, you may think it’s 72 degrees in the classroom, because that’s what a temperature sensor is telling the control system. But in reality, it might be 69 degrees. As your system attempts to compensate, you begin to receive staff calls that the building feels too cold. The human sensors are correct and your older building sensors have become unreliable. And as those sensors fail, so does energy efficiency and your ability to maintain temperature and moisture control within the facility.
The impact of improved lighting that can be obtained during an EPC retrofit can’t be overstated. Of course you obtain a significant reduction in energy costs when you move from fluorescent to LED lighting. But newer LED lighting technology delivers simply a higher quality of light that has a direct impact on students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom as well as improved safety in hallways and stairwells. All of which increases comfort in the building.
The start of a strong facilities improvement project often begins with the envelope of the building itself, including new roofing, new windows and weather stripping. We have visited many facilities where you can still see daylight below a closed outer door, indicating a need for replacement weather stripping at the very least. Even adding window tinting can improve a building dealing with excessive amounts of heat coming through certain windows. When it comes to roof-mounted solar PV, which many districts look to include during an EPC project, replacing out of warranty roofing that is beyond its useful life is a must before you begin.
These four areas are just a start to the facilities improvements you can achieve through a properly-managed EPC energy savings project. What we’ve found is that if you focus at the outset on the “big picture goal” of improving the learning environment by managing the indoor environmental quality (IEQ), you can see the biggest and most meaningful gains.
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