Lawrence schools save on utility bills by unplugging electronics, lowering thermostat during holiday breaks

Energy break

Headed to grandma’s house — or anywhere else — for a few days over Thanksgiving? John Geist, who manages the Lawrence school district’s energy program, offers these suggestions for trimming energy use while you’re away:

Turn down the thermostat. “But not off,” he says. “You don’t want your pipes to freeze, but you don’t need the home 70 degrees when no one is there.”

Unplug TVs, stereo systems, phone chargers and other items, especially ones that have a light or a display. They use power, and can account for as much of 5 percent of energy use.

Control lights. Indoor and outdoor lights can be placed on inexpensive timers, automatically providing illumination only when it’s dark or otherwise appropriate.

Cool the water heater. Turn down the temperature.

Teachers are unloading their refrigerators, flipping off computer monitors and unplugging their coffee pots — all to help the Lawrence school district save a few bucks over the Thanksgiving break.

It’s all part of an ongoing program to trim utility costs, thus far saving the district at least $3.6 million.

Turn off. Unplug. Conserve.

While on vacation.

“In your house, a 2,000-square-foot house, it makes a difference,” said Frank Harwood, chief operations officer for the Lawrence school district. “We have over a million square feet. When you look at it on that scale, it adds up a lot faster.”

During the five days of fall break and over the two-week winter break, the district expects to avoid spending anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 that otherwise would be lost on unnecessary energy.

Thermostats in all two dozen of the district’s buildings — that’s 15 elementary schools, four junior highs, two high schools, district headquarters, the Community Connections Center and a maintenance shop — will be set at 55 degrees, down from the usual 70 to 72 degrees considered appropriate for teaching, working and otherwise supporting education for more than 10,000 students.

Add in the benefits of turning off lights and unplugging power-sucking appliances, and the relatively few changes will make a difference when the district’s monthly power bills arrive. Last year the district spent $320,000 on utilities in November and December, a total that would have been about 3 percent higher had the conservation initiative not been in place.

“We have over 600 classrooms districtwide, and over half have refrigerators,” said John Geist, the district’s supervisor for building support services. “Those things run at $4 to $8 a month, per unit, so you can see how this stuff adds up.”

The Lawrence school board empowered the districtwide program in 2003, looking to trim expenses through efficiency. The district hired a consulting company for $440,000 to come up with an energy plan, one guaranteed to save the district $3 million within the first seven years.

Even before the seven-year window closed in June, the district already had cut its $14.38 million in expected energy costs during that period to $10.98 million, Geist said. The $3.4 million savings continues to mount.

The district’s utility bills are about the same now as they were back in 2003, Geist said, before the district added another 150,000 square feet of space to its inventory by building a new South Junior High School and expanding the three other junior highs.

“It’s really incredible,” he said. “It all adds up.”