School energy efficiency rated 12 out of 100 by EPA

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Art Director Lauren Kim

Vidhatrie Keetha, Staff Writer

Last week, the school received a grade of 12 out of 100 points — or a  D/12 — as its Building Energy Efficiency rating for the 2020-2021 school year. This rating, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), takes into account properties’ annual energy and water consumption. 

In a Letter to the Editor published in The Record last week, Head of School Tom Kelly and Director of Facilities Gordon Jensen wrote that errors such as considering all the buildings in Middle and Upper Division campuses as one unit, miscalculating square footage, and indicating that there were no cooking facilities contributed to the low rating. Due to these factors, the school has reached out to the EPA to request a correction to the rating, Kelly and Jensen wrote. 

As a result of recently passed legislation, which aims to significantly reduce energy consumption by 2024, New York City has given schools grades based on their energy efficiency since 2019. During the 2019-2020 school year, the school received a D/3 rating, or 3 out of 100 points. To determine a rating, the EPA considers factors such as the number of seats for students, how many computers are used, and the square footage of the school of the school, Jensen said. The EPA then considers how much energy is consumed per a square foot and compares this data to other buildings of a similar size, he said. 

In previous years, the school was required to complete a process called benchmarking, a method of tracking energy consumption using the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager Tool. In 2017, before the construction of Lutnick and Friedman Hall, an inspector evaluated the school’s energy usage, Jensen said. Because the school has not undergone the benchmarking process since, the EPA did not take into account the added square footage when determining a rating. “They were only accounting for 75% of the square feet,” Jensen said. 

Pandemic protocol has significantly affected the school’s energy consumption, Jensen said. “The only time we’ve gotten these letter grades is during COVID. The windows are open and the heat is on, air conditioning is on, and we’re using a lot more energy with the HVAC systems,” Jensen said. “We’ve also had to put in higher efficiency filters, which creates more static pressure, which makes the motor run harder to move the same amount of air.” 

Other schools have also received low ratings, Jensen said. Since the pandemic began, Jensen, who is one of the co-chairs of the Inter-School Facility Managers Association through NYSAIS, hosted weekly Zoom calls with other facility directors to discuss pandemic protocol.  “On the last call, when we all knew we had to post [the rating], the people who would tell me, they all had D’s,” Jensen said. “Even a school that was just built had a D.”

Jensen attributes the low ratings to the fact that independent schools tend to have longer school days than public schools, a factor the EPA does not take into account. “My cleaners are here until one in the morning. We have students here sometimes until 10 at night. So there are activities going on, and we have to leave heating and air conditioning running during that time,” Jensen said. 

Although there are many flaws with the rating itself, there are still flaws with the school’s current energy system, Jensen said. In particular, Tillinghast is one of the school’s least energy-efficient buildings because fan units on its roof send air to each floor. “When you do that, you send down, say, cooled air when it’s warm out,” Jensen said. “If one room is a little bit cold, the heat will open. There’s a coil in there that opens and it will bring the temperature up, so it’s not throwing colder air into an already satisfied or cold space.”

However, in buildings such as Pforzheimer, each room has individually controlled heating units which are more energy-efficient. “Each room has complete, individual control rather than taking it from one huge fan unit distributing to multiple spaces and then trying to send the ideal temperature,” Jensen said. 

The inefficiency of the energy systems currently in place can be attributed to the age of the buildings, Jensen said. “At the time [they were] put in, it was probably state of the art and the best they had, but that’s not the case anymore,” Jensen said. “There’s so much more out there, [such as] vacancy sensors in classrooms, which we’re looking to put in so that the lights switch off.”

The school is working to improve older energy systems. For example, the school replaced incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs when Tillinghast was renovated in 2004, and many of the bulbs are now replaced with LED dimmers. In Lutnick, lights only go up to 90% of full light, Jensen said. “You won’t even see the difference between 90% and 100%, but it’s still 10% savings on the energy that it uses,” Jensen said. 

Newer buildings on campus are also more energy-efficient, Jensen said. For example, energy systems redirect airflow to a classroom when carbon dioxide sensors detect high levels of carbon dioxide, causing problems with heating and cooling. “If you get a lot of kids in there, all of a sudden your carbon dioxide goes up. You want that below 1000 parts per million. So if it starts to hit that at about 800, you start introducing fresh air,” Jensen said. “If I introduce fresh air, I either have to heat it or cool it, but if no one’s in the room and I’m just at minimum air, I’m not really heating or cooling. So the building management system that we have between Pforzheimer and Lutnick that we’re integrating through the rest of the campus does all of that for us.”

The largest source of energy consumption at the school is lighting, Jensen said. “We use a fair amount of power here. It’s an active place, doors are opening and closing, kids in and out, but lights are the biggest consumption of power,” Jensen said. To consume less energy, the school replaced its high pressure sodium lights, which it previously used for exterior lighting, with LED lights. 

The school also sources renewable forms of energy. For example, the school installed a 53 kilowatt solar array on the roof of Rose Hall Hall in 2016 that currently backfeeds power into Pforzheimer, Jensen said. The school is looking to additionally install solar panels on top of the aquatic center, Jensen said. “The school is also 100% wind power, we do source renewable energy credits for all the electricity we use,” Jensen said. “Everything we’ve done helps, and that’s why [the rating] came as a little bit of a shock to me, because we do so much to try.” 

English teacher Rebecca Bahr said that although the rating may have relied on incorrect data, it still indicates that the school needs to put more measures into place.  “Hopefully, [the rating] is really wrong, and maybe it is, but how wrong can it be? Maybe we’re a C instead of a D,” she said. “The bigger picture is that okay, maybe then the next capital campaign’s got to be about really shoring up the way our school uses energy and gas energy.”

Emily Zeitler (12), who did not know about the school’s low energy rating, said that the majority of students and faculty are unaware of the school’s energy and water consumption. “They’re not really thinking about the rate at which we’re consuming energy, which I think is a problem,” Zeitler said. “I think we all need to be a little bit more educated about what energy is, how it’s used, where we use it and how we can be more efficient when using it.”

Students are also unaware of how the school manages its energy and water consumption, Zeitler said. “A lot of us forget to turn off the lights, and the automatic lights help with that,” she said. “But in terms of water consumption, I’m not really sure other than in my day to day life as a student, and I’m not sure what’s happening behind the scenes.”

Nitika Subramanian (11) also said that she does not know much about how the school’s water and energy consumption is managed. “I knew about [the school’s energy system] but I don’t really know how it works,” she said. “When I think about sustainability at HM, water isn’t the first thing I think of.”

Subramanian said that while students and faculty may be able to use energy more efficiently if they knew how the system worked, it is more effective for the system itself to become more efficient. 

She is not surprised by the school’s low energy rating because of how old a few buildings on campus are, she said. “My building has a low rating, and I know many older buildings have lower ratings.” she said. 

Bahr also said that the state of the buildings may have contributed to the energy rating. “When they built Pforzheimer and Rose Hall, I know there were some significant problems with that,” she said. “We just have to make sure when we do repairs to try and do them as environmentally soundly as possible, so that we’re not just pumping out heat and whatever else we’re commissioning.”

Overall, Bahr hopes that the low rating will contribute to an increased awareness of energy consumption at the school, as well as other environmental issues in general. “Hopefully people are paying attention to the environmental issues that are at hand, because it feels like we need all hands on deck,” she said. “People are starting to be aware, but it’s very hard to change. We should all be doing our part.”