Making the Grade with an HVAC System Upgrade

K-12 schools reduce energy costs and improve students’ performance outcomes

By Paul Selking, HVAC Business Leader

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the nation’s 17,450 K-12 school districts spend more than $8 billion annually on energy – more than is spent on textbooks and computers combined. An estimated $2 billion of that total can be saved by improving energy efficiency in K-12 schools, an amount equivalent to the cost of nearly 40 million new textbooks (U.S. EPA, 2004b; U.S. DOE, 2006).

Complicating these calculations is the aging of America’s public schools, where the average is 44 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The “functional age” of public schools when renovations are factored in is 19 years.

As school budgets dwindle and energy costs continue to rise, fewer resources are dedicated to school operations and maintenance. As a result, the health and performance of school buildings – and students – suffers; schools’ building needs diminish the potential of students and [school] staff across the country1. With the cost to maintain and improve educational facilities increasing, schools need to invest in retrofits and ongoing maintenance to assert control over their utility costs.

The good news is that energy is one of the few expenses that can be decreased without negatively affecting classroom instruction. Thousands of U.S. schools have figured out ways to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, demonstrating that smart energy choices can have lasting benefits for their students, their communities, and the environment. Along with achieving significant energy cost savings, investing in energy efficiency can produce environmental, economic, and educational benefits.

Improving Energy Efficiency and Outcomes in Schools

The EPA has found that increasing energy efficiency in K-12 school buildings can have the indirect benefit of bettering acoustic comfort like enabling effective communication by minimizing audible disturbance from outside and inside, which can also lead to improved student performance. Additionally, the money saved from lower energy bills can help schools pay for building upgrades that enhance the health and quality of the students' learning environment.

The physical condition of school facilities affects the performance, comfort and stress levels of students and teachers alike. A wide body of research illuminates the relationships between the physical and human performance of schools, including the links between:

  • indoor air quality and rates of absenteeism and asthma
  • lighting quality and student concentration
  • classroom acoustics and student attention
  • access to physical activity and healthy cognitive development
  • the design and condition of facilities and academic achievement
  • the quality of school buildings and long-term staff and teacher retention2.

Schools achieving higher building energy scores can have a positive impact on student test scores as well. By installing more energy efficient equipment, such as an upgraded HVAC system, school administrators are enhancing student comfort, healthiness and attention span, which can ultimately give test scores and education outcomes a lift.3

Indoor Air Quality in Schools

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GOA) estimates that more than 15,000 schools nationwide report poor indoor air quality. And, according to the EPA, schools with poor indoor air quality experience increased absenteeism, decreased student concentration and productivity, and lower student test scores. Poor indoor air quality is also a known trigger of asthma—a condition that accounts for 14 million missed school days each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.4

Schools are also faced with the issue of indoor air quality standards that require fresh air to be introduced into classrooms at a substantial rate. High quality HVAC systems must meet the stringent requirements of today’s modern education environments.

Upgrading HVAC Systems

According to the GAO, “…heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems were the most frequently reported building feature in need of [extensive] repair.” Since HVAC can account for as much as half of a school’s annual energy use, by retrofitting the equipment, schools can significantly reduce energy costs, sometimes by as much as 45 percent.

Research demonstrates that the health and performance of students and staff corresponds directly with the performance of the HVAC system.5 A high performing system can not only limit the presence of airborne toxins and mold-causing dampness but may also help to maintain classrooms at temperatures optimal for comfort and focused learning. Given that a typical HVAC system can consume upwards of two-thirds of the energy used in a school, there are also opportunities to substantially reduce energy costs by improving the efficiency of the system’s components.6

Financial Incentive Programs

Facility managers typically identify budgetary constraints, cost-cutting, and the up-front costs of building improvements as the greatest financial obstacles. By considering different finance mechanisms barriers facing schools today such as improvement financing, including up-front costs, cash flow considerations, and budgetary and regulatory constraints, schools can implement the infrastructure upgrades. For example, many schools are interested in using performance contracting to implement needed upgrades for their facilities and achieve energy savings. Other schools can take advantage of their local utility company’s standard incentives for installing new, energy-efficient equipment. Cash incentives may also be available to schools planning unique equipment installations and system and industrial process improvements

Selecting the Right HVAC System

The design and selection of the right HVAC system should combine a choice of engineered products efficiently providing conditioned air to the space at optimum energy while adding architectural features that complement the interior design. The geographical location of the building, ambient conditions, indoor requirements, building materials, dimensional parameters, aesthetic requirements, noise, and environment issues need different treatment.7

The internal environment of the buildings must be a major focus point in the HVAC system selection. To assemble the best HVAC system, the efficiency, performance, cost, and energy use will be major considerations when selecting components for the system.8 In K-12 classrooms, it’s extremely important to minimize equipment and air distribution noise. It is critical to select low decibel equipment and define its location relative to the conditioned space. To this end, many school district facility managers have come to realize the benefits of a single-packaged vertical unit that blends seamlessly into classrooms, providing students and teachers a healthier and quieter learning environment.

Even Quieter

To improve on these systems, HVAC manufacturers are integrating an all-in-one blower motor system into their units. This all-in-one system combines a high efficiency blower housing, axial flux, black motor, and variable speed ECM technology into one innovative assembly that delivers higher efficiencies, improved airflow, and lower maintenance costs. Additionally, this revolutionary system puts out an average of 2-3 dB less than comparable systems, making it the perfect HVAC solution for classrooms.

HVACs in Action

Located along Lake Michigan in Southwestern Michigan, the Lakeshore Public School District consists of three K-5 elementary buildings, one middle school, and one high school.

Nick White, director of operations for Lakeshore Public Schools, has orchestrated many changes recently. His attention and prudent management of school improvements at three elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school — to include broad HVAC upgrades — have improved both student and teacher comfort and energy efficiency at each facility.

In 2013, White and the Lakeshore school board looked at options, hoping to enhance student achievement. It had been about twenty years since any of the schools had new heating equipment installed, and none of them had any form of air conditioning.

“It was time to do something,” said White. “We would get daily complaints from teachers about the inconsistency of room heating. Students seated by old, under-the-window unit ventilators were either sweating or shivering.

“In the mornings,” he added, “the ventilators would be blasting heat and later, as the thermostat was satisfied, outside air was brought in to improve indoor air quality and student health.”

But the fresh air entering the rooms became a textbook lesson in thermal shock. Cold air immediately conditioned students and teachers. The discomfort was so routine that they knew to have their winter jackets nearby.

White noise was an issue too. “Another issue that we would get regular complaints about was the noise of the units,” continued White. “Teachers constantly had to yell to be heard over the incessant drone of the HVAC equipment.”

“Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher [with a voice like a muffled lullaby]? That’s how our teachers sounded to students before we got a new heating and cooling system; they couldn’t stay awake,” he said with a chuckle. “Our HVAC woes became a huge distraction.”

White contacted Scott Morgenstern, senior mechanical engineer for Kingscott Associates — an architectural and engineering firm based in Kalamazoo.

“Nick informed me that the school district was looking to do a significant amount of renovating and remodeling in all of the schools,” explained Morgenstern. “The bulk of work to be funded was slated to improve classroom HVAC systems — replacing old unit ventilators with new, quiet, energy efficient ones.

“The old systems were not only noisy, but they weren’t providing sufficient air distribution,” he added. “They were basically oversized fan coil units that sat under classroom windows with the sole purpose of making life miserable for students and teachers alike.”

Overheating and under heating were sure to affect classroom conditions daily. The discomfort was palpable. Outdoor conditions played an enormous role; another key variable was the location of a student’s chair. Teachers could move their desk, or walk about, but students were mostly unable to make improvements.

“Clearly, we needed a way to provide comfort within the schools,” said White.

Morgenstern sought out Scott Bolhouse, at Bolhouse LLC, a manufacturer’s rep based in Jenison, Michigan.

“Scott contacted me with a need for a high volume of unit ventilators,” said Bolhouse. “He explained the troubles Lakeshore Schools were experiencing. The school district needed equipment that would offer consistent temperatures year-round, quietly and efficiently.”

Bolhouse took White and Morgenstern on a tour of nearby locations with unit ventilators already installed and running.

“We’ve found that it always helps to demonstrate equipment operation; there’s nothing quite like a working demo in a setting not unlike the classrooms they needed to improve,” said Bolhouse. White and Morgenstern saw a variety of HVAC equipment that day.

After further research into equipment capable of solving problems at the school district, they chose Modine Manufacturing’s Airedale Classmate,” continued Bolhouse.

“One of the first things that stuck out to me at the demo was the noise — or better — the lack of it,” said White. “We learned about the equipment’s impressive sound lab performance, but it was most impressive to see and hear the equipment during our tour. We were certain that we’d found the right technology for our schools.”

Replacements for All Classrooms

For the five schools, 132 units were specified, and two Modine Varsity under-the-window units were chosen for the high school football locker room. The classroom units have super-efficient electronically commutated motors (ECM) and micro channel coils. Advanced blower and compressor technologies contribute to the decreased sound and power output.

They also have a proprietary CF coil, offering substantial improvements over existing parallel flow (PF) coil technology so prevalent in the HVAC market today.

The all-aluminum counter flow (CF) coils provide superb condensing and evaporation. Inside the CF coil, refrigerant makes two-passes — once up and then back down — to create a uniformly conditioned air stream.

evaporation. Inside the CF coil, refrigerant makes two-passes — once up and then back down — to create a uniformly conditioned air stream.

The vertical systems allow for ductwork and diffusers to be connected easily so that sound from the fan and the moving air are distributed throughout the room, which more or less eliminates the sound altogether.

“Kingscott has been designing with vertical style ventilators for years,” said Morgenstern. “These types of units have been our preferred solution since they came on the market. Being able to provide ducted supply systems to the classrooms allows for better temperature control throughout an entire room — which was a huge win for the Lakeshore Schools.” The two-stage cooling keeps the units operating in the most efficient range possible at all times.

Timing is Everything

“Lakeshore district’s first question to us before we won the bid was whether or not we could deliver the equipment on time,” explained Gillis. “There’s a very small window of opportunity to get these types of school jobs done since the work — demolition, installation, and start-up of all units — must be completed during the summer months so that they’re ready to go for the following school year.”

White says the teachers have nothing but praise at the lack of noise, and the delivery of consistent temperatures — and conditioned fresh air — in the classrooms.

“The renovations have had a dramatic ‘ladder’ effect. The students are happy, not distracted, and learning . . . which in turn makes the teachers happy, making it easier for them to inspire the student body, which in turn makes the school board happy,” said White.


  1. Ibid
  2. (accessed December 20, 2016).
  3. Rachel Belew, “A Breath of Fresh Air,” Principal, September/October 2011.
  4. The Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Research Bank, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
  5. EPA Indoor Air Quality Design Tools for Schools: HVAC Systems.
  6. (accessed December 20, 2016)
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