Lowering thermostats, saving money

Turning the heating thermostats down to 66 degrees this year saved thousands of dollars for Portland State while also allowing for a minimum amount of discomfort and complaints.

Mike Irish, director of facilities, reported that energy savings from Jan. 21 through May 22 resulted in total savings to the general campus of $27,301. The savings for Smith Memorial Student Union, which runs separately from the general campus, were $1,841.

When Irish took over as director Jan. 5, he faced the already existing problem of money shortages.

“The budget was being sliced and diced, and we were looking for ways to save money,” he recalled. University President Daniel Bernstine sent out a memo, which was also carried on the Internet, that he wanted thermostats set at 66 degrees in the winter and 78 in the summer. That meant the heat shut off at 66 and the air conditioning didn’t turn on until temperatures reached 78. Irish saw it as his first big challenge as new facilities director.

“I had been through it at Eastern Washington (University), so I knew what it was like to have to go out and turn thermostats down. People don’t like it, but actually the university community worked very well with it. We didn’t get many complaints,” Irish said.

The policy was not applied indiscriminately.

“We assured the community that we would address each and every complaint, and we did,” he said. He gave credit to his staff of five systems mechanics and two refrigerations mechanics.

“Our guys were hopping there for awhile,” he said. “There were some areas where we simply had to turn the thermostat up because people had health problems.”

These adjustments did not affect whole buildings, just areas within some buildings.

However, balance became a problem because some of the buildings are just so old.

Setting a thermostat at 66 could mean some areas in the building could be down to 62 and other areas up to 70. Irish’s crews had to go in and balance the heat as best they could.

The PSU campus is heated by a central heating plant, with boilers in Cramer Hall and in a central heating plant near the I-405 freeway. From the boilers, heat is pumped through a tunnel system. Gas fires the boilers, and electricity fires the gas.

As for the general outlook for the heating system, Irish said, “The boilers look good.” The university is talking about the possibility of additional savings by providing dual controls on the boilers so they could be switched at will to burn oil.

“If the gas price rises above the oil price, we may be able to burn oil until the price drops back down again.”

The boilers now can burn oil if necessary, which sometimes happens if gas gets cut off due to lack of supply. In that case, the plant has oil pumps that make it possible.

Irish expects gas prices to go up. He said he has met with the two representatives from gas delivery and they have both predicted that gas prices will rise next year.

Being able to switch easily from gas to oil would have both advantages and disadvantages.

It would save money when gas prices exceed oil prices. The campus has some storage for oil now, but not sufficient storage to depend entirely it, even if temporarily. A new system might require putting above-ground oil tanks, which would take up much ground space already in short supply, on the campus.

Burning oil would require a lot of oil and necessitate daily oil deliveries. However, the university could burn a lighter grade of oil than is now possible, perhaps even diesel fuel.

If gas prices go up, could thermostats be lowered even more?

“I don’t think so,” Irish said. “Sixty-six is as low as I’d like to see it lowered anyway.”

On the air conditioning side, he pointed to some of the recently unseasonably hot weather.

“We’ve had some days in the high 80s and 90s, and we’ve had to deal with those issues,” he said. “People call in, they have a concern, we go right over and talk to them and find out what their concerns are. See if there’s something we can adjust.”

He gave credit to his systems crew, which he called “just about the best I’ve seen. They’re quick to respond. They don’t blow anybody off.

They go over and find out what the problem is and try to resolve it.”

He has a tactic in addition to air conditioning for keeping the buildings cooler.

“We’re bringing the fans on earlier in the morning to draw outside air in when it’s cool, to cool the buildings down so we have a running start on the heat. We use as much natural air conditioning as we can.” But when the outside temperature reaches 75 or 76, it’s time to shut down the fans.

Irish has drawn up charts for each month since January, comparing previous energy consumption on days with comparable weather. The charts show that in the short month of January the general campus saving was $3,502; in February, $6,618; in March, $8,996; in April, $5,651; and in May, $2,532.

Smith Memorial Student Union operates under a different budget. The student building fee budget pays for maintenance, except for library east, which operates under the general campus budget. Including library east, the Smith savings were: January, $319; February, $556.64; March, $461.12; April, $253.57; and May, $250.44.

At times, there is some mingling between functions of library east and the remainder of Smith Union. Facilities has been doing some seismic upgrades and ceiling replacement in Smith Union, paid for by student fees. For another $35,000, facilities could do the work at the same time on library east, so Irish elected to do the work and have the general campus budget pick up that cost.

Irish has praise for student involvement in campus facilities.

“We have nontraditional students,” he said. “They’re older, with an average age of about 27. They want to be involved. They ask the hard questions. It’s a good thing. It makes our job a lot easier.”