ASD works toward smarter buildings

Jan 17, 2017

Assistant superintendent Tom Heald watches as one motion-activated light turns on when he enters the Skier Dome at Aspen High School. The lighting upgrades have saved the district enough money to cover a teaching salary.
Credit Aspen Public Radio News

Administrators at Aspen schools recently finished a thorough round of testing, but these tests are not for students. They are designed to see if the district’s buildings are performing as efficiently as they should be, and there is some real work to do to get smarter.

Upgrading a school building is not always an easy task. Don Stalker is in charge of maintenance at Aspen High School, and he has a long list of things that need attention: heating, lighting, plumbing and more.

Stalker has been through this before. Prior to moving to the high school, he took care of the elementary school. That building dates back to 1992, and Stalker made big improvements, including taking apart each of the 78 toilets and installing low-flow valves.

“It’s taken me two years to get that far,” Stalker said. “It’s when I have time. You can’t affect the kids, so it’s when I’m working late. I come in at 6 o’clock in the morning to get two hours before anybody gets here to get that type of stuff done.”

 

The low-flow toilets save 3 gallons every flush, hundreds of gallons every day, but administrators have found quicker fixes for some of the schools’ inefficiencies.

About three years ago, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) hooked Aspen School District up with a $30,000 grant to identify inefficiencies in the buildings.

“The low-hanging fruit was upgrading all the lighting fixtures and the lighting processes that we use here in the high school,” said assistant superintendent Tom Heald.  

CORE found another grant, this time $125,000 from Holy Cross Energy that was used to improve lighting in hallways and gyms.

“You can walk in the door and the light above you is the only one that comes on,” Stalker said.  

Those low-hanging upgrades have saved the school about $54,000 annually for the past two years.

“That’s essentially a teaching salary,” Heald said. About 85 percent of the school district’s budget is allocated for staff.

The schools have also saved half a million kilowatt hours in electricity for the last two years. Marty Treadway with CORE said the average home in Colorado uses about 7,400 kilowatt hours per year, so that savings is enough to power 68 homes for an entire year.

“We actually improved the lighting in those spaces, so it’s not like the school district is making a sacrifice,” Treadway said.  

The schools have spent the money provided by those grants, but Heald said the work isn’t over.

“We want to model ways of thinking and ways of acting which reduce our carbon footprint,” Heald said.

Administrators are aiming for smarter school buildings, ones that use automated systems more efficiently. Right now, for example, Stalker and his crews can’t shut off the heat on Sundays or holidays, when no one is in the buildings.

District administrators are starting to eye flashier projects. Heald said he is starting to look into installing solar collectors around campus, but this may be a few years down the road.

“For us, solar is the icing on a cake that you’ve already baked. So we’re still baking those cakes at the school district,” Treadway said.  

Those smaller changes are coming along at the schools, according to Stalker.

“You start at that corner of the building, you do 20 feet, and then next month you do another 20 feet,” he said. “Just keep piecing it together.”

This approach could be the ticket to meaningful change. Treadway said all of the work done at the schools is replicable in buildings everywhere, for a relatively low cost, and it adds up.


“Forty percent of all energy consumed in the United States is in our buildings. It’s ahead of transportation, it’s ahead of industry,” Treadway said. “Making a difference at home and at work is the most profound way we can engage in energy efficiency.”

At the high school, at least, that could mean one person, changing one toilet valve at a time.