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Energy Efficient Schools Toolkit

Energy use in schools can vary widely, depending on a number of factors, such as building size, equipment, location, number of students, occupancy patterns and even occupant behavior. Typically, lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation account for the greatest energy consumption, but also represent the greatest cost-savings opportunities for your school district.

School Energy Use ChartAn energy audit, or building energy assessment, is the first step when considering how you can reduce energy consumption in your school. Understanding how your building consumes energy will help you make a road map of areas to consider for energy improvements, and also help prioritize projects.

Schools with successful energy conservation efforts have found numerous low-cost and rapid-payback strategies in the following areas:

  • Lighting
  • Bulbs
  • Ballasts
  • Occupancy sensors
  • Exit signs
  • Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC)
  • Control systems such as variable frequency drives (VFDs)
  • Water heaters
  • Kitchen equipment
  • Swimming pools
  • Many other avenues for savings exist, including building envelope,  vending machines, and computer and office equipment

Tax Incentives

Don’t overlook the importance of investigating rebates and tax incentives that might be available, as this can impact what projects your school can undertake. In addition to state and federal incentives, local utilities often offer incentives that can make your project more financially viable. In Montana for example, NorthWestern Energy provides incentives for various energy efficiency projects such as lighting, HVAC, and VFDs.

The following links can help get you started:

Tracking Programs

Energy tracking programs are among the best tools available to schools looking to reduce energy consumption. They serve as a first step in understanding exactly how your building is using energy. The second step is to combine information from the energy audit with data from your energy bills to find areas that will benefit from energy-efficiency measures.

In addition, meters and software products that track energy usage are widely available. The more information you can collect about your building’s energy use, the better your understanding of your whole system will be, which can help you maximize your energy-conservation efforts. Each school is different but the common thread, understanding the  energy bill, will benefit all.

Energy Management Software

Setting Measurable Goals and Objectives

Energy bill photoWhen setting energy efficiency goals, focus on those that are realistic and achievable. Energy affects most aspects of the school system, so it’s good business practice to set goals. Here are some steps that can help you develop short-term goals:

  • Track monthly energy bills with visuals
  • Identify changes over time and estimate baseline costs
  • Make sure to include all energy consumption bills, not just electricity
  • Implement goal tracking
  • Involve as many employees as possible to help implement an energy-conservation program
  • Create energy practices and projects list
  • Execute

Best Practices: Onsite Energy Reduction & Product Guide

The combination of data collection with obtainable goals sets you up for the third step: application. Below is a brief list of low-cost ways to get started. These “low-hanging fruit” opportunities typically have lower capital cost, allowing you to see immediate paybacks, and they are easy to implement.

  • Repair window and door glass and weather stripping
  • Reduce excessive light levels by carefully de-lamping
  • Conduct combustion testing and boiler tune-ups
  • Repair pipe and vessel insulation on steam and hot water distribution lines
  • Institute night and weekend temperature setbacks
  • Eliminate continuous operation of exhaust fan and vending machines
  • Replace ALL incandescent light bulbs with equivalent LEDs
  • Establish district-wide vacation shut-down procedures
  • Repair malfunctioning dampers on unit ventilators
  • Repair air leaks
  • Shut down equipment when not in use
  • Turn off lighting in areas where lighting is not required
  • Change air filters
  • Replace frail or missing insulation
  • Clean exhaust fans and repair or replace loose or broken belts on fans
  • Clean condenser coils
  • Insulate refrigerant suction lines
  • Check walk-in coolers to ensure defrost timers are set properly
  • Maintain good air flow around evaporators by removing debris and other objects that may block air flow
  • Repair or replace leaky or damaged HVAC duct work

There are labor and materials costs associated with these projects listed above, costs that must be covered by capital or operating budgets. However, in most cases, the expenses associated with these changes will be recouped in energy cost savings in two years or less.


Lights in a school hallwayLighting systems include a number of components, including lamps, ballasts, fixtures, and controls, that help provide the proper illumination levels throughout the building. Lighting strategies represent the easiest opportunities to reduce energy consumption without any major expense. Simple and inexpensive strategies are switching off lights when not in use; de-lamping; and cleaning lamps, diffusers, and fixtures. Schools can also install automatic controls such as occupancy sensors, time controls, and dimmers, another simple and inexpensive way to consider energy-reduction efforts.

The educational objectives of a school are affected by a growing number of conditions. New research is showing that characteristics of the physical environment, including indoor air quality, ventilation, thermal comfort, acoustics, building age, and lighting, all play an important role in the achievement and growth of student learning.

Different types of bulbs offer different levels of warmth and brightness, and both can affect students’ ability to learn and concentrate. The resource How Just The Right Lighting May Improve Learning in Classrooms, explains this in more detail. In addition, our Energy-Efficient Lighting Toolkit will explain the best lights for different spaces. However, when in doubt, just turn it off!

Heating, Cooling, and Ventilation

Heating and cooling account for the greatest energy use in the majority of schools, making it a great target for energy-conservation efforts. Scheduling routine maintenance on heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) units, such as cleaning burners and air-conditioner coils, replacing and cleaning air filters, and checking ducts and pipe insulation for damage, can extend the life of your HVAC equipment. Regular maintenance provides optimal performance, saves energy and provides a comfortable and healthy building environment.  Check out our ­HVAC toolkit for a more in-depth information.

Variable Frequency Drives

A variable frequency drive (VFD) or variable speed drive (VSD) works by converting incoming electrical supply from a fixed frequency to a vacillating frequency. This variation allows the drive to control how the motor operates. Finding the drive that fits your needs will help with operating costs and energy efficiency, reducing future energy bills. For a detailed look at our VFD information and how these drives can aid in conservation efforts, check out our Motors toolkit.

Building Envelope

Energy efficiency features are most easily integrated into a building during the design and construction phases. Foundations, insulation, windows, doors, lighting, and ventilation efficiency can all be addressed in the initial stages of building design, even in renovation projects. This is beneficial because retrofits can be complex and expensive after the building has been constructed. Nevertheless, a thorough evaluation of the potential energy conservation measures is always useful when considering cost-saving methods. Building envelope conservation steps can be found here.