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Enhancing the Learning Environment in Educational Facilities

It’s no secret that parents opt to provide the best possible educational experience for their children. Parents and teachers alike often factor in school systems when considering relocation options. Parents pack healthy snacks and lunches and provide a quiet area for homework and studying; teachers do their best to provide an in-class environment conducive to learning.

Decisions are made every day to foster an optimal educational environment for students around the world, and one would assume that schools would make the same decisions. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many schools are under pressure to simultaneously reduce expenditures and energy use while improving student performance. It can be a daunting task, and focusing on upgrading a building management system (BMS) may appear as having minimal impact on achieving these goals. However, the reality is investing in energy efficiency can result in substantial savings, and an optimized learning environment.

A recent survey of 150 higher education facility decision makers discovered that 71% of those managers had an action plan in place for working towards building improvements to achieve energy efficiency goals, while 17% are currently working on a plan and 11% have no plan at all. These numbers show that higher education institutions are placing a high value on improving their facilities, allowing them to distribute the excess funds to other areas of the institution.

Upgrading the building control infrastructure of a single school building or an entire district can produce benefits that affect not just the bottom line but also student performance. One study conducted by Kyushu University in Japan found that improving ventilation rates in classroom and laboratory settings resulted in a 5-9% improvement on tasks involving theory and memorization. Additionally, upgrading or installing an intelligent BMS that actively monitors energy use and identifies areas of improvement can help schools drastically reduce their energy consumption.

The energy saving opportunity cannot be understated. In the U.S., the Department of Energy’s EnergySmart Schools found that primary and secondary schools spend more than USD $8 billion annually on energy, making it the second largest operating expenditure after personnel costs. By installing an integrated room controller that can automatically shut off lights when no motion is detected, school districts can operate and manage their budgets more effectively by shifting budget from lighting to directly supporting students and faculty.

Thankfully, a number of energy efficiency solutions can be tailored to meet the unique needs of an educational setting, offering relatively low upfront costs while delivering considerable cost savings.

Stage 1: Identify Areas with the Greatest Need

The first step to reducing energy consumption is to identify the areas with the greatest waste. This could be a specific area, wing of a building, or an entire building. After identifying the first target area, school facility managers should then install integrated room controllers in that building or section.

Integrated room controllers provide a myriad of capabilities, with an easy installation thanks to their wired and wireless design. These room controllers provide a single interface through which room occupants can control the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), lighting, and metering systems. They also come with subtle sensors that register room occupancy and adjust settings accordingly – such as turning fans off if no motion is detected in a room.

Stage 2: Scale the Solution

After the successful completion of stage one, schools can focus on scaling their solutions to the rest of the school or to the rest of the school district. Because of the wireless capabilities of integrated room controllers, the solution is easily scalable beyond the initial focus area. Additionally, the controllers are very easy to set up, typically requiring 15 to 20 minutes per room and the expertise of one electrician.

This ease of scalability means the solution can be expanded upon on a monthly or yearly basis, depending on budget allowance. The return on investment (ROI) on each room controller installation may be reinvested into expanding the solution.

Stage 3: Add Networking and a Building Management System

Once the solution has been scaled across a building, school, or district, the facility manager should consider implementing a BMS to network room controllers together. The BMS can further optimize performance by providing insights and analysis from the data compiled from each controller. Networking sensors and controllers together creates an intelligent system that can identify trends – such as peak energy usage times throughout the day or school year – and alert facility managers to faults in the system.

As part of a BMS, facilities can install room sensors that detect when a door or window is left open. These sensors not only serve as a security measure, but can also cut wasteful energy usage and point to areas where HVAC systems are malfunctioning. For example, if a window is left open during a cold day, the BMS can alert facility managers that the room temperature is set too high or a heater needs to be repaired. The window’s sensor would also generate an alarm within the BMS, alerting the facility staff to a possible issue.

The BMS is also capable of providing real-time visualization of energy usage from a single platform. Facility managers can receive detailed insights on the energy usage of their building, or aggregate reports from BMS across the school district to highlight key areas where energy consumption can be further reduced.

Key Factors to Consider

When selecting a vendor to help drive energy efficiency initiatives, there are a few factors that schools should consider. The first is scalability – this is crucial for ensuring the success of the initiative, as outlined above. Scalability also provides a cushion for school districts, which may have to expand existing buildings and schools or build entirely new ones to address changing populations and demographics.

Second, the solution should use open and industry standard protocols, such as ZigBee®, EnOcean®, BACnet®, and LonWorks®. Using these open protocols ensures that the system can be easily expanded upon and is also open to future technological innovations in building management software and hardware, guaranteeing the success and longevity of the installation.

Third, the vendor should have experience in the education sector. Schools have a very unique set of needs and challenges, such as the constantly shifting occupancy statuses of rooms, perpetual schedule changes, and unpredictable situations that affect student occupancy rates. The vendor should be prepared to meet these challenges and provide the best counsel for the specific requirements of the educational setting.

To ensure education budgets are being spent most effectively, school facility managers should consider taking steps to reduce energy consumption rates, which would allow school boards to use the cost savings to further invest in students. Taking a staggered approach as noted above maximizes efficiency, improves the comfort and wellbeing of students and faculty, reduces budget restraints, and delivers immediate ROI. 

By investing in energy efficiency, we are investing in our youth and our nation’s future. Adopting a smart approach to energy management and efficiency not only reduces wasteful spending, but also ensures that students and faculty alike are provided with a comfortable environment optimized for student-teacher engagement and learning.

Tara Canfield is segment director, education and commercial office buildings for Schneider Electric.

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