Garden Hills celebrates completed geothermal system

Garden Hills celebrates completed geothermal system

CHAMPAIGN – Garden Hills Elementary School has brighter hallways and cooler classrooms this fall, and the distinction of being the Champaign school district's "first green school."

On Tuesday, the school celebrated the completion of a geothermal system that provides a more efficient way to heat and cool the building.

To fifth-grader Claire Mallare, the school feels "clean and fresh."

"It feels good," she said. "It feels like a better school. It's very exciting.

"I feel good that it's being better for the planet," said Claire, who won a green poster contest at the school and got a green iPod Shuffle for her prize. "Now (Garden Hills) stands out because we've got geothermal."

For kids, that means it's easier to focus on learning during those first few weeks of school, when classrooms in an un-air-conditioned Garden Hills were pretty uncomfortable, said literacy specialist Stacey Storm. This year, "it was easy to forget that it was hot outside," she said.

Students also got an education on ways to reduce energy use. Geothermal may have been a difficult concept for the younger grades, but teachers talked about what students can do to conserve energy at home, said Garden Hills Principal Cheryl O'Leary.

"Part of it is showing them responsibility to be green for the planet," she said.

For the district, the project means energy savings and a model for ways to make other school buildings more energy-efficient.

"It was a learning experience," said school board member Kristine Chalifoux, an architect who has led efforts to make the district's buildings more green. "It's the first time we've ever worked with a performance contractor, the first time we did a geothermal project, the first time we did a mass retrofit of lighting."

The performance contractor worked with the school on how to improve its energy systems and helped arrange financing. The cost of the project will be paid for with the energy savings.

The work included installing the geothermal system, upgrading the lighting and adding capacity to the electrical system. The district also worked with the performance contractor to upgrade lighting at Centennial High School and replace two boilers there.

Gene Logas, chief financial officer for the district, said the $2.8 million projects will save the district about $75,000 per year in energy costs.

Geothermal energy uses the earth to heat or cool fluid flowing through underground pipes. If the fluid pumped underground is cooler, it absorbs heat from the earth, and if it is warmer, it loses heat.

A heat exchanger takes the heat from the water to heat the building and returns the chilled water back into the ground to be warmed again, or vice versa to cool the building.

"Whatever we were spending just to heat the building, now we're going to be air-conditioning it during the summer, and our projected utility bills will be less than they used to be just to heat the building," Chalifoux said. "Not only are we going to save a lot of money, we're going to get a lot more use out of the building than we ever could before."

The district is applying for grant money to install geothermal systems at five other elementary schools and two middle schools. It has nearly completed a lighting upgrade at Bottenfield Elementary School, and it plans to retrofit the lighting at four other schools during the next two years. It is applying for grants to help pay for that work as well.

Most of the district's buildings have older fluorescent lighting, and it can be replaced with newer, more efficient fluorescent bulbs and ballasts, Chalifoux said, adding the energy savings will pay for the cost of the lighting upgrades in a year or two.

"It's something that makes a lot of sense to do, and the quality of light is so much better," she said.

Other work includes changing all the exit sign lights from incandescent bulbs to LED and putting energy management systems on all the district's vending machines and computers.

The district is getting a baseline energy usage level on its buildings, and it plans to establish a program to recognize schools that meet targets for reducing their energy costs.

"I'm hoping we'll be able to really talk to teachers and staff and explain the easy things you can do and what an impact it makes," Chalifoux said.