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August 26, 2011

SECO Not Too Cool For School

By MARK WANGRIN

Research shows that when air temperatures rise to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the brain makes a primary demand – that the body cool itself.

Algebra can wait.

With this summer’s record heat wave and budget restraints giving Texas schools a double whammy heading into the new year, the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) is showing that in the battle between cutting costs and educating our children, cooler heads can prevail.

The new Texas Cool Schools program allows public school districts to apply (until Sept. 1, 2011) for a share of $25 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to replace aged and ineffective heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units.

Teaming Up on Efficiency

"Schools are always looking for ways to decrease overhead costs while improving the learning environment for students," says Korry Castillo, SECO energy efficiency program manager. "Energy and utility costs are the third largest spending category for ISDs in Texas and, with budget constraints, it has become even more important for schools to be more energy efficient."

Public school districts can apply for awards ranging from $100,000 to $2 million to replace existing systems with qualified energy efficient units.

"The new systems achieve significant savings over those available 10 years ago – the minimum age of equipment that can be replaced under Cool Schools," says William "Dub" Taylor, SECO director. "Also, tight school budgets mean that older AC equipment remains in place longer than its useful life, resulting in increased maintenance costs, reduced performance, noise/classroom distraction in addition to higher energy usage."

It’s Not Just the Heat

In the 1960s researchers began linking excessive temperatures with learning problems. Heat stress, they found, can cause a variety of maladies, including fatigue, headache, mental and physical inefficiency, restlessness, irritability and disinterest.

That’s not exactly a recipe for effective book learning.

Educators began pushing for central air conditioning to replace opened windows and random cross breezes as a necessary learning aid. It didn’t come cheaply. Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, spent $46 million of a $50 million bond issue in the late 1960s to retrofit its 225 schools. Despite the cost, many Texas ISDs soon followed suit – the importance of which cannot be understated.

According to research cited in a 2002 white paper by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, the best temperature range for learning reading and math is between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit. "As temperature and humidity increase, students report greater discomfort, and their achievement and task-performance deteriorate as attention spans decrease," the report noted.

Comfortable air temperature is not the only benefit of functioning air conditioning. Schools generally hold more people per square foot than other environments, and children breathe a greater volume of air in proportion to their bodyweight than adults. Air in schools is typically rife with carbon dioxide and other contaminants, such as perfumes, cleaners, building materials and pathogens. The American Lung Association found in 2002 that American children miss more than 10 million school days each year because of asthma exacerbated by poor air quality.

Clearing the Air

To qualify for the grants the school districts must meet certain requirements:

  • Projects must impact classrooms — administration buildings, field houses and auxiliary buildings are not eligible;
  • Each school district is eligible for only one Texas Cool Schools grant, but the grant can cover the cost of replacing HVAC systems on multiple campuses within the district;
  • All HVAC projects must be installed by a licensed Texas air conditioning contractor, who must certify proper installation of eligible equipment; and
  • HVAC projects must be completed by April 30, 2012.

Work will start after the grants are awarded in early October, when temperatures will be cooler.

Presumably.

Learn more about SECO and the Texas Cool Schools program.

E-mail your comments or suggestions for future columns to: Mark.Wangrin@cpa.state.tx.us

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