Leading the Way

March 8th, 2016

EMU was one of the three national leaders in efficient energy use out of 90 colleges and universities surveyed two years ago by the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers. The association recently released its findings.

Ranked third out of 90 schools, EMU started on the path to energy efficiency in the late 1970s when one of its science professors spent a year studying ways the college could cut fuel consumption. New energy-efficient buildings and an innovative heating and cooling system followed in the 1980s.

“We estimate we have saved between $3 and $4 million over the last 10 years in energy costs, compared to what we would have spent if EMU ranked in the middle of the pack for energy efficiency,” says physical plant director Eldon Kurtz.

The average energy cost per square foot for EMU for 2005-06 was $1.04. Costs for other institutions were about twice that, according to the 2005-06 Facilities Performance Indicators Report by the facilities officers association, known as APPA.

In 1986 Eastern Mennonite took the risk of installing an innovative, but unproven, heating and cooling system in its then-new Campus Center, designed by LeRoy Troyer, an architect based in Indiana and an early leader in designing energy-efficient buildings.

“Contractors in the area were just waiting to see this thing fail,” recalls Kurtz. In those days, Kurtz was a construction manager for Brunk Mechanical, the Campus Center’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractor.

Troyer promoted “life-cycle costing” – that is, considering the long-term cost of using a building, rather than simply the front-end cost of erecting it.

The Tri-Water Systems for climate-control installed by EMU was so new in 1986 EMU had to pay royalty fees to install it. It is a “closed-loop” system that circulates water, maintained at a temperature between 70° and 90°F, using the sprinkler system for the return pipe. The system cools water if needed by exposing it to air through a cooling tower and warms water if needed by adding heat into the loop from a boiler. This approach saves about one-third of the material and labor cost for piping that would be needed to provide piping for separate heating and cooling systems.

“The beauty of it is that it allows us to heat and cool multiple spaces simultaneously,” explains Kurtz. “If temperatures in a room on the east side of the building rise, we can take heat out of the air and put it in the loop to then circulate the warm water through pipes to the north side of the building where it is cold.” Today about 45 percent of the campus is heated and cooled by this type of closed-loop system.

Powered by natural gas, the EMU system relies on fuel distributed to small “package” boilers around campus that operate at better than 90 percent efficiency. No energy is lost in the distribution of energy from a central system to the outer reaches of campus.

The system has also paid off in terms of low maintenance and operating costs. In 1986 EMU installed 60 heat pumps in conjunction with the Campus Center system. Fewer than 10 percent have been replaced so far and annual maintenance involves only changing filters and cleaning drains.

A key to allowing the system to work at its best, Kurtz notes, is a tight “building envelope,” which is what LeRoy Troyer designed into the Campus Center, the Commons and seminary buildings. Troyer’s design required EMU to spend more up front for high-quality windows and insulation, among other things.

“EMU was one of the pioneers in energy-efficient building, which means that some of what we did was by trial-and-error,” Kurtz says. “Yet we learned that even if you make mistakes in trying new ideas, you can still come out ahead in the long run.”

On a sunny winter day the building is often “in balance,” Kurtz says. “Even at 40° or less the building may be rejecting heat from the water loop through the cooling tower, because the system is doing such a good job of shuffling heating and cooling needs.”

While an innovative heating/cooling system has made a huge dent in EMU energy use, the single biggest factor in campus energy efficiency is simple, according to Kurtz. “We heat and cool rooms and buildings only when we’re using them.”

Kurtz dates EMU’s interest in energy conservation to the late 1970s when the college’s fuel bill doubled in three years, from $156,000 to $313,000. To help address the problem, physical science professor Robert C. Lehman chose to spend his 1976-77 sabbatical studying campus energy consumption.

Dr. Lehman was the first to raise Eastern Mennonite’s consciousness of how energy is used and wasted. He installed a monitor in the Suter Science Center where anyone interested could see real-time graphing of the peaks and valleys of the college’s daily energy demands. Lehman’s study prompted the administration to repair steam lines that were losing heat in the winter, modify heating and cooling systems to be more efficient, change some lighting to use less electricity, and invest more in energy-saving maintenance. The result was a $66,000 reduction in utility costs in a single year.

Soon after Lehman’s sabbatical ended, Troyer’s architectural team conducted a condition audit of campus buildings, which led to winning a federal energy grant that paid for additional conservation measures.

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