Campus temperature policy saves energy and money

A gentle reminder: Keep the AC at 74 degrees

As the daily forecast rapidly moves from warm to hot, it’s tempting to reach for the thermostat and turn up the air conditioner.

Not so fast, say the folks in Facilities, Engineering and Planning.

Richard Johnson, the university’s director of energy and sustainability, reminds the Rice community there’s a university policy against thermostat settings that turn classrooms and offices into refrigerators.

Since 2009, the university has maintained a temperature guideline for heating and cooling in campus buildings: For cooling, the thermostat shouldn’t go below 74 degrees, and for heating it shouldn’t be set above 72.

That guideline was developed by a panel of Rice employees from several schools and departments at a time when the university’s energy costs had risen 40 percent over a year, Johnson said.

When President David Leebron announced the policy to the Rice community, he wrote, “We can help mitigate these cost increases with some conservation measures that will impose relatively minor inconveniences, especially when you consider the payback in lower costs and environmental benefits.”

The panel based its temperature recommendations on standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers and on the policies of other institutions in the South and along the Gulf Coast – universities, specifically, that share Houston’s climate.

So if Rice technicians won’t set your thermostat below 74 this spring, don’t blame them, Johnson said. “They’re doing their jobs. If people get a little hot under the collar, they should remember that service technicians are following university policy. So treat them with kindness and respect, even if you disagree.”

There are just a couple of exceptions to the 74-degree cooling rule:

— Spaces that require strict temperature control, including some labs and special collections in the library, are exempt from the policy.

— It might get just a bit warmer a few days this summer. From June until September, Rice will again participate in the state EnergyShare program, in which larger energy consumers voluntarily agree to reduce their energy consumption at peak times to reduce the likelihood of rolling brownouts. That’s when air conditioning may be turned off for short periods of time – about 20 minutes each hour, on a rotating basis. (This usually happens just a few afternoons each summer.)

The university’s implementation of this temperature policy in 2009 was only the beginning of a major effort to minimize energy waste at the university. In 2010, the university appointed John Windham, a controls technician at the time, to a new position designed to track Rice’s energy use and eliminate waste in buildings across the campus.

So far, that has mostly meant finding ways to reduce electricity use at off-hours, when campus buildings are closed. A classroom, for instance, doesn’t need to be cooled overnight if no one’s using it; turning up the thermostat at night saves energy and money. Windham has been making adjustments like that for nearly two years now.

“John has this dark little office where he sits quietly at his computer and basically mints money for the university,” Johnson said, laughing.

That description isn’t too far off: When Windham dialed back heating to the bare minimum when the campus shut down for winter break, it saved the university nearly $100,000. And since most people weren’t on campus that week, the change went largely unnoticed.

Last year, barely noted adjustments saved the university about $225,000. Windham said there are opportunities for additional savings in 2012.

Johnson pointed out that the temperature guidelines aren’t just good for the environment. They’re good for the university’s bottom line.

“Every dollar that we spend on utilities,” he said, “is a dollar that is not available for teaching and research and student activities and all the other functions that are part of the university’s educational mission.

“The university’s mission is not to pay the utility bill,” he said. “We pay the utility bill so we can support our mission.”


About Alyson Ward

Alyson Ward is a writer in Public Affairs at Rice University.