School Climate & Safety


By Michelle R. Davis — October 16, 2008 8 min read
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In California, schools are downloading satellite data to predict the weather and better control how much water they use to maintain their fields and other outdoor landscaping. In Georgia, a district is selling its old computers to a recycler as long as that company agrees to refurbish and resell them cheaply in the community. And in one district in Colorado, school computers are put in “hibernation” every evening to cut down on energy consumption and costs.

Schools around the country are tapping new technology to be more environmentally friendly, sometimes saving money in the long run, and showing students how to take a leadership role in “green” initiatives.

“A few years ago, when you mentioned green techniques in schools, people would say, ‘It’s too expensive; it’s not practical,’?” says Ying Wang, the program manager for the Collaborative for High Performance Schools’ new-facilities program in the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. “Now, it’s quite a movement.”

Programs such as the collaborative, or CHPS, that provide criteria and methods for energy savings and others that rate the “green friendliness” of computer products help schools in their eco-friendly efforts.

For example, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, an environmental-rating system managed by the Green Electronics Council, rates computer products on 51 criteria. The standards measure a host of factors, including energy efficiency, the presence of hazardous substances (such as mercury and lead), the extent of a product’s recyclability, and the amount of recycled materials a product contains.


1. Consider a wide range of areas for green-computing approaches, including heating and cooling of schools, eliminating packing materials for large computer shipments, and using recycled computer parts.

2. When making a technology purchase, check the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, for products and companies that have a high “green” rating.

3. Before starting school construction projects —such as building new facilities or renovating old ones— incorporate green efforts by checking with the Collaborative for High Performance Schools or CHPS, which provides criteria and methods for energy savings.

4. Sell older district computers to a recycling company that agrees to upgrade and resell them at a discount to the community.

5. Institute centralized programs to put PCs across the district into “hibernation mode” in the evenings and on weekends.

6. School districts often use too much air conditioning to keep the temperature cooler in rooms housing computer data centers. Consult an expert to determine the ideal temperature for data centers.

For more tips on green technology use, consult the following organizations:

Collaborative for High Performance Schools

Consortium for School Networking

Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

The Portland, Ore.-based council provides a bronze, silver, or gold seal to manufacturers, says Sarah D. O’Brien, the EPEAT outreach director. It’s been two years since the rating system went into place, and “we’ve seen manufacturers continually competing to get a few more criteria,” she says. “It has created this whole market driver for the manufacturer. A few years ago, people weren’t engaged in this.”

O’Brien says it often doesn’t cost more to buy EPEAT-rated computers. “Schools can obtain the environmental benefits without a whole revolution in their purchasing,” she says.

Schools can also take more basic steps when it comes to computer purchasing to be a bit more green, says Bailey F. Mitchell, the chief of technology and information for the 32,000-student Forsyth County school district in Cumming, Ga. When the district buys a typical order of 5,000 computers, it’s left with mounds of cardboard and plastic foam when the machines are unpacked. Mitchell says he’s spent years pushing his equipment provider not to package the computers individually.

“You unpack a third of 5,000 computers, and you’ve filled up three dumpsters with boxes and packing material,” he says.

Recently, Mitchell persuaded the provider to pack the computers 12 to a box.

In addition, Mitchell says, when it’s time for computers to be replaced, the district sells them to a recycler at minimal cost. For example, the recycler has sold 3-year-old district computers with 17-inch monitors for $110 to local residents, he says.

Payback on Investment

Other green-technology efforts are aimed at energy efficiency.

In the 24,000-student Poudre school system in Fort Collins, Colo., Stu Reeve, the district’s energy manager, says simple adjustments are saving significant money.

The technology department has instituted a centralized signal putting most of the 8,000 district computers into hibernation mode at 6 p.m., he says. If someone is still working on a computer, he or she can opt out of hibernation simply by pressing a button. Reeve says the move is saving $50,000 a year in energy costs.

In addition, Reeve worked with the tech department on a compromise for air temperature in IT rooms where machines are humming but people rarely work. Thermostats at data centers are now set at 85 degrees instead of 70.

Wang, of the Los Angeles schools, says all of the 40 to 50 new school buildings planned in the district in the coming years are set to comply with all the CHPS criteria. Eighty fairly new schools already comply with many of the criteria, she says.

For heating and air conditioning needs, the centrally controlled HVAC system in new schools uses an economizer adjusting indoor temperature based on outdoor temperature. So if there’s an unseasonably warm day in the middle of winter, the system will use less power.

In addition, carbon dioxide monitors detect how crowded a room is and use less ventilation when a room is empty, light sensors turn lights off when there’s enough natural light, and outdoor sprinkler systems tap into satellite data to determine if there’s been a major rainstorm and watering isn’t needed.

By using all those green tactics, schools are saving about 30 percent on their energy costs, Wang estimates, though many of the schools are new and not much hard information is available.

In Virginia, the 10,500-student Alexandria school district used guidelines from a program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (or LEED), similar to the CHPS program, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, to design a new building for its T.C. Williams High School.

In addition to a 450,000-gallon cistern to collect water runoff used to flush school toilets and a white roof to minimize heat absorption, sensors collect all the school’s energy-use information, according to Bryna C. Dunn, the vice president and director of environmental planning and research at Mosely Architects, based in Richmond, Va., which designed the building. It opened for the 2007-08 school year, and she says cost savings are “hard to quantify,” although she estimates utility bills are about 30 percent less than if the school had been built to typical Virginia codes.

But with energy-efficient technology, she says, “you can get payback on your investment in three to five years.”

Advances in computer technology are also contributing to energy efficiency.

NComputing, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company, uses “virtualization” technology to run large numbers of computers from a single PC. Carsten Puls, the company’s vice president of strategic marketing, says his company installs its technology on a standard PC as a host, and divides up the resources into multiple accounts. The result? More energy efficiency. (“IT Experts Turn to ‘Virtualization’ As a Money-Saving Approach,” this issue.)

Leading by Example

The tilt to “green” computing is accelerating, and not only because of economics. Educators believe that if they’re teaching students about being environmentally friendly, schools should practice what they preach.

“It’s a big national crisis,” says the Consortium for School Networking’s Richard S. Kaestner, referring to national concerns over global warming and energy consumption.

“It’s on everybody’s mind, and people look to the school district to be a good community citizen,” says Kaestner, the project manager for the Washington-based CoSN’s leadership initiative aimed at green computing. “I think it’s natural that the school districts pick this up and show a leadership role.”

The group’s initiative was set to launch in October.

But Kaestner also says financial stresses are prompting schools to look for new ways to save money. “This is not a good budget year coming up, and saving energy means saving money,” he says.

New CoSN guidelines will promote methods to seek out green products and dispose of technology in an environmentally friendly manner, and suggest ways to conserve energy and develop techniques for using technology to save on printing and travel costs. CoSN will provide short-term and long-term tips for school districts.

Schools and companies are leading by example.

At T.C. Williams High in Virginia, all the information collected by sensors—on electricity use, water use, the level of heat the roof is reflecting—will now be crunched and displayed daily on a school computer “dashboard” featured on a flat-screen monitor in the student common area.

The information will also be incorporated into school lesson plans, says Dunn of Mosely Architects.

“They’re going to use it as a teaching tool and a model of green design,” Dunn says. “The students will be studying their own surroundings.”

‘Enormous Opportunity’

Private companies are joining the effort, too.

Lutron Electronics Co., a Coopersburg, Pa.-based lighting company, makes energy-efficient lights with sensors that adapt to the amount of daylight coming into a setting and the number of people in a room. Steve Beede, market-development manager for Lutron, estimates that the company’s products save schools at least 50 percent compared with the energy costs of traditional lighting. The company has developed teaching ideas using portable energy meters to explain how the technology works and make comparisons with traditional lighting methods.

“There’s an enormous opportunity to take these real-world situations and use technology that students can see and interact with,” Beede says. “It’s kind of like sneaking vegetables into their cookies.”

David Vernier, the founder of Vernier Software & Technology, based in Beaverton, Ore., says he decided to use his company’s solar panels to help students tap into ideas about alternative energy as well as science and math.

Vernier, whose company makes scientific sensors and other equipment used by schools, outfitted the two types of solar panels on his company’s building with sensors that calculate how many watts of energy are being produced by the panels. On the Vernier Web site, students can look at wattage output and time of day, check the weather from a roof video camera, and compare the solar panels. Lesson ideas for teachers are included.

“I thought, ‘Lots of kids are interested in alternative energy, and there are probably lots of kids doing projects on solar energy,’?” Vernier says. “Now they can see it in the real world.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as GoinGreen


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