Managing Your Empty Campus

A well-managed long-term unoccupancy can save schools significant resources.

May 19, 2020

By Theresa Duncan, Lawrence Eighmy and John Pozzetta, The Stone House Group

We are certain you are familiar with this adage — modified for these times:

The architect will dream what could be built,
The engineer will define what can be built,
The finance committee will budget what will be built,
But COVID-19 will determine when anything happens,
And in the meantime, the business office will preserve the empty campus — the school’s largest asset!

While COVID-19 has sadly emptied our campuses of activity for the time being, school leaders have an opportunity to reflect on how they might best tend to these spaces. Vacant classrooms, gyms and gathering spaces give us a brief pause to reevaluate and find focus. What steps should we be taking to preserve our operations? What actions might be taken in the present and the future?

Long-Term Unoccupancy and the Building Management System

The shut-down of schools and campuses across the nation has occurred in a typical “shoulder season” — an approximately three-month transition period from typical cool winter weather to warm summer days that we call "spring." Our facilities shouldn’t need significant heating or cooling, and it’s an opportunity to significantly ramp down building energy consumption via not only heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) but also lighting, domestic water heating, computer plug load and more.

Your campus building management system (BMS) should already have systems scheduled into unoccupied mode, but those unoccupied space setpoints could be relaxed further.

Your campus building management system (BMS) should already have systems scheduled into unoccupied mode, with relaxed space temperature requirements. But those unoccupied space setpoints could be relaxed further. In periods of significant unoccupancy, typical unoccupied setpoints of 67°F heating and 76°F cooling may be pushed to 60°F heating and 80°F cooling, depending on the given humidity levels.

For example, schools might consider adjusting the outside temperature threshold for boilers from the usual 60°F to reduce boiler runtime during a long-term unoccupancy. Similarly, a chiller may normally kick on when the outdoor air temperature reaches 65°F, but you may find that raising the threshold to 75°F or beyond is more appropriate. When there is no chance of a freeze or damaging humidity, a window of opportunity opens to turn buildings “off” — and increase savings.

Additional measures include:

  • Turn off all lighting except for emergency lighting and lighting required for operations staff to make rounds. 
  • Turn off domestic hot water recirculation pumps to reduce load on water heaters. 
  • Turn off desktop computers with power supplies from 250-500 watts rather than putting them into sleep mode. 

Over a three-month period, aggressively reducing building energy use could reduce annual utility costs by 10% or more.

The following less aggressive but still valuable guidelines can also provide savings during shorter periods of unoccupancy, such as summer vacation or holiday breaks.

Setbacks for Higher Temperatures and Humidity

During summer vacation or in humid climates, a less aggressive setback will be prudent to avoid mold and mildew. However, you can still lower energy consumption further than a standard unoccupied mode. Tempered ventilation is critical to keeping humidity between 40-60%. Staff that conduct building rounds and spot check the operative status of facilities can monitor the relationship between HVAC setback and humidity to ensure humidity does not rise too high. Additionally, if the BMS allows for remote monitoring, it can track and trend data on these spaces.

Internet of Things: Sensors and Control Strategy

Beyond the BMS, institutions should be leveraging low-cost wireless-capable monitoring devices. These internet of things (IoT) sensors aid in the remote monitoring of campus during prolonged unoccupancy. Using stand-alone sensors to monitor the temperature and humidity of known problem areas will reduce on-site rounds and their associated risk. Facilities staff can find these sensors readily at big-box home-repair retailers. These IoT devices use familiar protocols such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and Wi-Fi. Pairing economical IoT devices with an aggressive HVAC curtailment strategy will provide a remarkable return on investment.

Energy Procurement Strategies

The long-term effects of late April’s spectacular drop in oil prices are yet to be determined. Future costs could rise dramatically with the current constraints on output. The operative pause of COVID-19 gives institutions time to reevaluate their current energy procurement strategy and plan for future energy purchases.

Look for “swing” provisions in current contracts that may penalize the institution for using less energy than contracted.

Look for “swing” provisions in current contracts that may penalize the institution for using less energy than contracted. Does your supplier consider this pandemic as a force majeure? If they do not, can they be persuaded to do so?

Evaluate full or partial contracts for one to five-year terms, with the option to add additional load or extend contracts further should pricing be favorable. Locking in favorable rates now for years ahead may not only help stabilize the operating budget, but provide savings that in turn could be used to fund facilities improvement projects.

LED Lighting Upgrades

Over the past 10 years, the cost of LED light bulbs has decreased dramatically, making the payback period of retrofit projects shorter and more enticing. LEDs are not only more energy efficient — delivering higher lumen output per watt compared to traditional incandescent or compact fluorescent light fixtures — but LEDs also have a much longer lifespan. Dimming capability and output color rendition have also significantly improved, making now a good time to switch. Altogether, this means institutions will spend less money on multiple replacement bulbs or renting specialized equipment to replace burnt out bulbs. 

Begin with long run-time fixtures in relatively accessible areas, such as exterior lights in the parking lot and building entry, corridor lights, and any classroom lights with easily retrofitted fixtures. In many cases, LED manufacturers have developed retrofit technology that reduces the time and effort to replace traditional fixtures. When considering LED projects, consider both payback and the ability of maintenance staff to complete the work without a licensed electrician. We see the lack of capital as a reason to not do the work, but the payback is so attractive that deferring for lack of capital is not a winning strategy.

Facilities Condition Assessments

With campuses shut down and buildings unoccupied, now is an ideal time to conduct a facilities condition assessment. While major planning projects may be put on hold, facilities walk-throughs that identify urgent physical plant needs are imperative to maintaining the longevity of a school’s biggest asset — its physical plant. A prioritized list of facilities needs helps administrators make better decisions about reinvestment in the physical plant and avoid spending excessively or by surprise in this current environment.

Based on the assessment findings, institution administrators can make informed, strategic investment choices to prevent further degradation of the physical plant. A few scenarios:

  • The boiler is approaching or past its expected life and at risk of failing soon. Knowing this can allow you time to research an appropriate replacement while allocating reserve resources. It may also help the school avoid unexpected emergency costs from renting emergency equipment or replacing the boiler with an inefficient product.
  • Assessing the age and condition of building roofs will help maintenance staff catch hidden leaks and prevent unnecessary damage to structural and cosmetic building.
  • The refrigerant commonly used in small air conditioning systems, R-22, has been phased out. Planning for equipment upgrades or replacement is important, as the refrigerant is only available on the secondary market and is expected to become increasingly difficult to obtain.

Enrollment and Space Management

As the economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to emerge, many institutions may see a decrease in enrollment this fall and in coming years, as parents either choose to homeschool children or can no longer afford to pay tuition. As a result, facilities operations costs per student as well as the gross square footage per student may increase. 

This increase in gross square footage per student could be advantageous in the short term, allowing for social distancing next fall. However, in the long term, reduced enrollment has the potential to become a financial burden, and campuses may need to consider ways to shrink their footprint while still providing an enriching education. Some administrative staff, for example, might work remotely and occupy less office space.

Operating Hours

When institutions eventually return to in-person learning, extracurricular activities, sports and large group gatherings will likely be limited. Schools should therefore plan for modified operating hours and adjust both class schedules and BMS schedules accordingly. If institutions shift to reduced class sizes that align with social distancing guidelines, the number of class sections will rise, and campuses may need to add evening and weekend class times to accommodate these new schedules. Academic buildings’ BMS schedules will therefore require modification to account for this shift in operating hours. With limited after school activities and sports practices, institutions could offset any additional operating expenses by modifying BMS schedules in those underutilized spaces (i.e., gyms, dance studios and theaters). Coordinating across multiple buildings for a longer time, schools may see significant savings.

Smarter Cleaning Strategies

New information on cleaning products’ efficacy in killing the new coronavirus appear regularly. Review and evaluate the cleaning products and processes used in your school’s facilities. How many times a week are high-use and high-touch door handles, light switches, and other surfaces being cleaned and by what methods? How frequently are carpets extracted and classrooms and common rooms undergoing deep cleaning?

Should a student, teacher or staff member become ill, what is the protocol for notifying people who might have come in contact with the infected person, and what are the cleaning procedures to minimize exposure? Does that building or area of campus need to be shut down and deep cleaned for a period of time? How might that affect instruction and other functions in that area?

Occupant Health Awareness

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, schools have an increasing obligation to protect the health of their building occupants. Two ways to improve safety and hygiene measures are through the adoption of a building standard such as WELL Building or LEED certification, or through an operational change that increases air filtration in a building.

What LEED has done for campuses in the realm of sustainability, the WELL Building standard seeks to do for human health in the built environment. The WELL Building standard provides an evidence-based framework for institutions to meet the health needs of their constituents by using industry best practices in existing buildings and new construction.

Campus HVAC systems also play a critical role in ensuring occupant health, and schools may seek increased air filtration. Operations staff should be familiar with the minimum efficiency rating value (MERV) of ventilation filtration equipment. MERV 8 filters have been commonly used in the past, but MERV 13 filters, which block particulate matter and respiratory droplets, may become more appealing. Note that increased filtration will require increased fan motor use and energy, as the fans have to work harder to push air through a more restrictive filter. Changing the filters without understanding system capacities may not have the desired results.

Retrofitting energy recovery wheels in existing air-handling units or leveraging their use will help offset increased energy use. Additional outdoor air via such energy recovery devices will dilute recirculated air and aid in occupant comfort. Retrofitting ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) lights within a ventilation system may also be prudent, but again comes with a utility cost.

It is imperative to understand that the increased cost of providing a healthy building should be offset by the benefit of healthy and comfortable occupants. Evidence-based scientific research suggests that teachers and student perform better and are less sick in a healthy environment. When faced with future uncertainties, emphasizing the societal benefit of our institutional operations will yield remarkable results.

The future of physical academic campuses is at a crossroads, tested by both economic struggle and health concerns. By taking time now to invest strategically in plant upgrades, evaluate space and teaching configurations, and develop plans for increased occupant health and comfort, educational institutions can lead the way in becoming stewards of the built environment.

Lawrence Eighmy is the managing principal at The Stone House Group, which facilitates "building stewardship." Theresa Duncan is a space planner and John Pozzetta is a certified energy manager at the company.



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