Are energy management systems too complex for school facility staffs?

When school districts demand the latest and greatest, they need to think about how those choices will impact the district’s facilities employees.

March 01, 2015 |
Are energy management systems too complex for school facility staffs?

Photo courtesy EnergyManagementSystems.org

Jim Wilson thinks that, in their haste to make their schools modern and efficient, some school districts are installing energy management systems that are overtaxing the ability of their maintenance staffs.

Wilson owns JFW Inc., a 25-year-old project management company in Gaithersburg, Md. Most of the K-12 work he does is with private schools like Sidwell Friends, the Quaker school that President Obama’s daughters attend. Wilson says that Sidwell’s middle school has 3,000 contact points that have to be monitored, which puts a significant burden on the facility’s maintenance staff.

He says energy codes keep raising the complexity level of what’s being installed. Maintenance crews are having trouble keeping up with EMS technology that has jumped by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years. “We didn’t have all of these [air exchange] requirements that we do now,” he says.

Wilson recounts one school’s head of maintenance who was so flummoxed by the facility’s systems that he operated the building as if it were occupied 24/7 so he didn’t have to deal with the controls. “I got a call from the school asking why its electric bills were running sky high,” says Wilson.

Jim Deluge, a Project Executive with Turner Construction, believes that maintenance staffs have a responsibility to “catch up” to the sophistication level of these new EMS systems. On the flip side, HMC Architects’ Sandy Kate thinks problems could be reduced if maintenance staff were included in early planning meetings before construction begins.

School district officials who recognize this potential problem but still want state-of-the-art operating systems will sometimes outsource the monitoring. DRL Group’s Jim French says his firm’s engineers have the ability to remotely monitor a client’s systems and let that school know almost immediately if anything’s askew.

“You have to be careful not to get too exotic,” says Fanning Howey’s Chuck Tyler. The design firm recently worked with a school district in Belleville, Mich., that demanded the systems for a 320,000-sf high school be simple enough for the district’s current maintenance personnel to manage.

Wilson contends that some schools simply don’t need the high-octane systems they specify. One project he worked on called for a $180,000 EMS. What ultimately got installed, he says, was a $40,000 system “that can do pretty much what’s needed in the building” and matches the skill set of the maintenance team. 

When school districts demand the latest and greatest, they need to think about how those choices will impact the district’s facilities employees. On one recent project in Connecticut, Wilson had the contractor conduct six months of training sessions for the maintenance staff. “You can’t learn this stuff in two days of classes.”

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