Classroom conditions in Cook County School District 104 just outside of Chicago were affecting student performance and teacher morale. Providing appropriate IAQ and a comfortable environment to the K-12 buildings was a critical part of the school district’s mission. However, like many school districts, financial constraints made large infrastructure investments a challenge.

With five schools in the district — and mechanical systems dating back to the 1960s — the district began a process of renovating its facilities to improve performance and efficiency. An economic downturn interrupted progress on the district’s facility improvements, leaving only three of the five schools renovated and causing a lack of parity within the district.

The two remaining buildings had heating-only mechanical systems. Without air conditioning there were days at the beginning and end of the school year when classroom temperatures rose above 90ºF. This caused class cancellations on numerous occasions, and in some instances, students with health conditions had to be moved to other schools.

“Our students are not as productive, engaged, or ready to learn when they are horribly hot,” said Amanda Deaton, principal at the district’s WW Walker Elementary School. “At the end of the school year, we expect them to perform well on high-stakes testing for the state, and we’re not providing a comfortable learning environment to enable them to do that.”

The district wanted to provide a comfortable learning environment for its students and teachers in an energy-efficient manner. Having worked with Trane® in the past, the district superintendent contacted Trane team members to discuss the necessary facility renovations. The goal was to ensure that classrooms were safe, efficient, and quiet.

Using Trane Building Advantage™ energy solutions, a series of feasibility surveys and an energy usage analysis were conducted. Using that information, Trane presented the district with a plan that provided the solutions needed to improve the learning environment while also minimizing energy consumption.

The plan included a complete redesign of mechanical systems at the two schools, new unit ventilators with air conditioning, asbestos abatement, design and installation of a BAS, connection to the Trane energy center, and even replacement of classroom cabinets and lighting. Workshops were held with the district facilities committee, school board members, and members of the community to explain the proposed upgrades and the benefits the plan offered the district.

During one meeting, Trane retrofitted a classroom with a working unit ventilator to demonstrate its quiet operation. After turning off the much louder old unit, there was a significant drop in the decibel level. Many of the people in attendance assumed that both ventilators had been turned off, when in fact the new Trane unit ventilator was still operating.

“It was a great example to show how changing the equipment can provide a much quieter environment and a very impressive demonstration for my school board,” said district Superintendent Dr. Troy Whalen.

Following the plan, the boiler, pumps, and piping configuration were replaced at one school location. Trane unit ventilators with electronically commutated motor (ECM) technology were installed at two other schools in the district. According to Trane officials, ECMs, which are standard on Trane unit ventilators, help optimize performance to provide energy savings up to 66% compared to conventional motors.

A web-based Trane Tracer™ SC BAS was also installed, providing the school district with access to its building system and allowing them to adjust classroom temperatures as well as perform daily tasks such as scheduling, troubleshooting, alarm management, and data analysis.

Trane Air-Fi™ wireless technology was used to eliminate the need for communication wires between the BAS and unit controllers. This reduced the time, disruption, and cost of installation, and provides easier troubleshooting and maintenance for the district over the life of the system.

The improvements resulted in numerous benefits for the district. It is now much easier for teachers to control the temperature in their classrooms. The web-based BAS allows building staff to view the entire building and easily adjust temperature setpoints in specific classrooms throughout the day.

“When I walk into a classroom, the first thing I look for is how engaged the students are,” Deaton said. “I would definitely say that I have seen a huge difference in student engagement.”

The building equipment improvements and energy management solutions have improved efficiency for the district, and the electricity costs are nearly $70,000 below school district expectations. 

“Surprisingly, our electric usage, which I thought would go through the roof because of the additional air conditioning units, was almost a third less than expected,” Whalen said.

In 2016, the school districted was able to complete the second phase of the project using a Guaranteed Energy Savings Contract. With the guaranteed annual energy savings of $111,691 that was provided by the contract, and over $370,000 received in energy rebates from the Illinois Energy Now program, the school district was able build new Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) labs at all five schools in the District. In the STEAM labs, students use project-based learning to gain unique real world experiences for their future. The students and staff are also able to view, monitor, and interact with the building systems through customized dashboards that were created during the energy efficiency projects.