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Assignment: A lower heating bill

Schools battle high costs by turning down thermostats, encouraging sweaters.


Tribune Staff Writer

January 16. 2006

They turn down their thermostats, weatherize their buildings and band together to secure the best buys. Faced with rising natural gas prices, school districts across Michiana are employing a variety of tactics to tackle heating costs. It's their way of addressing a problem that experts say won't go away.

"Consumers, businesses and school districts should expect to pay more for natural gas in any year than they did the year before," says Jim Ostroff, a Washington, D.C., energy expert. "It is extremely unlikely that natural gas prices will go down."

Given that grim forecast, schools are doing what they can to cut heating costs.

Tweaking the temperature

One of the simplest ways to reduce natural gas use, school officials say, is to adjust the thermostat. It's a quick trick that many schools use these days. For instance, take St. Bavo's School, in Mishawaka. Its last heating bill was more than $5,000 -- about double the previous bill, says Principal Linda Hixon. After seeing it, she decided the school would turn down the heat, and students would wear sweaters and sweat shirts to keep warm.

Now, officials keep the temperature at 62 degrees during the day, she says. At night, they shut off the heat completely, and when students first arrive for school, the temperature is only about 58 to 60 degrees.

"I thought 65 to 66 degrees was pretty low, but to have it over $5,000, it was like, whoa!" Hixon says. "You try to do your best, and you try to cut back."

Randy Squadroni, business manager for School City of Mishawaka, says his district keeps its buildings at about 68 degrees during the day, and as low as 60 degrees on nights and weekends. Plymouth Superintendent John Hill says his school corporation sets its thermostats at about 69 degrees during school hours and about 61 degrees after hours.
Art Weaver, director of the school operations center for Niles Community Schools, says officials turned down the thermostat to about 65 degrees during the recent holiday break; that's down from the normal temperature of 72 degrees.

And John Strauss, assistant superintendent of facilities management for the South Bend Community School Corp., says the corporation turns off the heat in many buildings during student breaks.

Fixing facilities, equipment

Some districts, including South Bend, find it useful to weatherize buildings and replace old equipment

"The big thing, I think, is we (have) spent a lot of time and money to upgrade our facilities," Strauss says.

School officials keep track of how heating-efficient each building is, he says, and use "surgical strikes" to target inefficiency.

"We just sit down with our figures and decide, OK, this is the bad school, and let's figure out why it's bad," he says, adding that insulation, better boilers and windows, and an operator-friendly energy management system have all helped the district use less gas.
That's important, Strauss says, given today's energy costs. Through Dec. 1, he says, the district paid an average of $1.03 per therm; he estimates the average cost for all of 2005 was $1.15 per therm, thanks to a cold December. Hill says Plymouth has cut gas use by replacing old boilers, which were generally about 65 percent efficient, with new ones, which are about 95 percent efficient.

"When we replaced the boilers at the high school -- I think that was about three years ago -- they have already paid for themselves," he says. Meanwhile, Niles' Weaver says boiler maintenance has helped his district reduce its demand for gas.

Buying, saving together

In addition to cutting back on gas use, some school districts are joining with others in order to save on purchases.

For instance, Nina Kuhlman, a spokeswoman with Illinois-based Nordic Energy Services LLC, says almost two dozen school districts currently claim membership in the North-Central Energy Cooperative, which buys natural gas through Nordic.

The cooperative includes districts in Elkhart, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Marshall, Pulaski, St. Joseph and Starke counties, she says.

Members, Kuhlman says, include Bremen Public Schools, Culver Community Schools, John Glenn School Corp., Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp., the Plymouth Community School Corp., School City of Mishawaka, Triton School Corp., and Union-North United School Corp.

The cooperative buys natural gas in bulk in order to save, says John Zaharias, vice president of operations for Nordic. Each member school district pays the same rate, he says.

Currently, the cooperative's rates are between $1 and $1.10 per therm, Zaharias says, adding that in 2005, the average rate was 74 1/2 cents per therm.

"I know we've all saved money," says School City's Squadroni. "I know we've all saved thousands and thousands of dollars."

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