Two high school students — one a junior the other a sophomore — recently told the School Committee the equivalent of what their parents have probably said a thousand times: Turn off the lights!

They also told them to unplug unused appliances and make sure, after a big event at the Collins Center, that the power is turned off after each performance.

All told, they said, the town is wasting about $100,000 a year in energy costs because the schools aren’t taking care of simple things like unplugging refrigerators in the summer — when nobody is there to eat the food, which is going to be thrown out anyway. 

They also found, through an energy monitoring program hooked up to their laptops, that power was left on at the Collins Center after a big event over the summer, causing energy costs there to skyrocket when nobody was in the building.

“Over less than a quarter of a year, the school consumed more than $24,000 when unoccupied,” said junior Jordan Altaffer, during a presentation to the School Committee last month. “That equates to more than $100,000 per year, wasted when the high school is unoccupied. Imagine the savings at all the other schools!”

Under the guidance of Green Advisory Board member Anil Navkal, the two high school students spent 100 hours of their summer vacation studying the high school’s energy consumption. Altaffer and sophomore Frank Cai worked with Navkal to closely monitor and record the amount of energy being used throughout the high school.

“The goal of the program was to study the intricacies of building management, with an emphasis on efficiency,” Navkal said. “By using the school’s own HVAC system as a hands-on learning environment, the program introduced a unique approach to science and math education.”

More than data

The two students paid careful attention to their collected data and tried to find ways to reduce energy throughout the year. One suggestion they came up with would be as simple as unplugging a cord.

“During the summer, not all of our focus was just on looking at graphs and data, we also looked around the school and tried to find other ways to save money,” Altaffer said. “Food is just left in refrigerators all summer and no one is going to eat it when they come back. By that time, realistically, it’s all gone bad so there’s no reason these things should be plugged in.”

Altaffer suggested reducing the number of refrigerators in the school to one per department or one per wing. He also said that by mandating a brand or size of refrigerator and implementing a policy to shut off the refrigerators over the summer, energy could easily be saved and contribute to lowering costs.

The hours spent collecting and analyzing data paid off on a measurable scale over one weekend this summer. Cai said that on average, the energy used in the Collins Center over the summer was costing around $20 per night. On Friday, Aug. 14, however, he and Altaffer noticed a 700 percent spike in energy usage and according to Cai, the cost rose to $140 per night.

“When we saw this, we were very confused so we decided to go to the Collins Center and analyze what was actually going on,” Cai explained. “Through this mini investigation, we found that because there was something going on and the Collins Center was being rented out, and because the Collins Center manager was out on vacation, afterwards (the energy) was not shut off.”

When the two returned to work the following Monday, they notified the head custodian and, after he shut off the unnecessary energy being used, the Collins Center’s energy levels went back to normal. This ability to monitor energy usage even when they’re away from the high school is just one example of how energy efficiency can help the town save money.

Potential savings

Over the course of their three-month study, the group measured $87,201 of energy being used. At the end of the summer, their data revealed that about 45 percent, or $38,851 worth of energy had been used by empty buildings. While they all agree that there is still more analysis and data collection to be done, Navkal said that the potential for saving money through energy efficiency is huge.

In addition to Navkal, Altaffer and Cai received help and support from Janet Nicosia, manager of energy and utilities, Dwayne Scruton, mechanical and electrical foreman, and Schneider Electric.

Following the Dec. 4 presentation, Steve Chinosi, director of Strategic Innovation for the school department, was impressed.

“Ultimately here, we have this true collaborative project that’s actually scalable to a national level around sustainability and advanced analytics,” he said. “There’s nothing like this in the country. As someone who’s created a national sustainability project in schools, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s really remarkable work.”

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