Educational infrastructure in the U.S. is aging.

In 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics surveyed a sample of school districts and estimated the average age of the nation’s primary school buildings was 55 years old. Within these aging buildings lie outdated HVAC systems that consume massive amounts of energy, leaving school districts to deal with costly energy bills. With HVAC systems being among the largest consumers of energy inside school buildings, it comes as no surprise that energy efficiency is one of the top drivers for the replacement market in institutional settings.


There has been a dramatic shift toward efficiency across the country, noted Kevin Miskewicz, director of commercial marketing at Mitsubishi Electric US Inc. Cooling & Heating Division.

“Nationwide, schools are being asked to meet increasingly stringent energy codes,” he said. “Highly efficient HVAC systems, like VRF [variable refrigerant flow], have become an obvious choice. These systems also help schools earn points toward green certifications, which many schools have a great interest in pursuing, especially in the Northwest. Regions that previously did not require cooling systems, such as the Northeast, are now requesting cooling due to an extended or shifted operational year and hotter temperatures. A K-12 school in New York, for example, might previously have had window air conditioning units or no air conditioning at all.

“Now, many regions have longer school years,” he said. “Many school buildings that previously were unoccupied during the summer are used for summer camps, academic programs, or community meetings. As a result, building conditioning is needed year-round. Hotter temperatures exacerbate the situation, making cooling a necessity in regions that previously were able to get by without it.

“Schools in regions that now require cooling are opting to go beyond window air conditioning units. The same requirements of their heating systems — efficient operation, easy maintenance, and reliable performance — apply. Mitsubishi Electric’s VRF systems are a smart fit since they can offer both cooling and heating from one system, which reduces the number of systems required within a building.”

Miskewicz also said energy management is an ongoing challenge for schools.

“At the heart of that challenge is the need to keep costs down while keeping occupants comfortable. Energy costs vary throughout the country but are still a huge consideration for schools that must keep hundreds of occupants comfortable throughout the year. At the same time, the cost of energy is going to continue to increase. Teachers and students aren’t focused on this fact, however, and just want to be comfortable in their spaces. They’ll do what they have to do to achieve that comfort — adjust thermostats in the classroom and open or close windows and doors. This is one reason schools across the country are turning to VRF, which provides superior life cycle costs. While VRF’s initial equipment cost can be expensive, VRF’s installation and operational costs are often lower. VRF also provides savings during installation with its standard controls system. Further cost efficiency can be achieved by selecting an advanced controls system provided by the VRF manufacturer as this eliminates the need for multiple controls integrators. Installation costs can further be reduced because VRF systems are easily installed, which saves on materials and labor.”

Increasing energy codes and standards are also driving the market to be more efficient, according to Tyler Utecht, product manager, energy recovery/dedicated outdoor air systems (DOAS), Greenheck Fan Corp.

“Most states have either updated or will be updating their energy codes, which will result in higher energy-efficiency requirements for HVAC equipment,” said Utecht. “The code updates are driving far more efficient products, which is good for the school market, considering the equipment that is being specified today is the same equipment that is going to be running 15-20 plus years from now, and the school district is responsible for operating costs over the equipment’s entire life. This drive toward energy efficiency has made DOAS paired with highly efficient, sensible systems, like terminal water-source heat pumps [WSHP], VRF, chilled beams, and radiant panels, the system of choice for schools. This type of design allows for sensible and latent cooling loads to be decoupled and provides optimum comfort to those in the spaces. DOAS also allows for exhaust air energy recovery to be utilized, which can help reduce outdoor air cooling loads by 3-4 ton per 1,000 cfm of exhaust air recovered, which helps reduce the initial equipment cost as well as operating costs over the lifetime of the equipment.”

Utecht said Greenheck’s Rooftop Ventilator with Energy Recovery has been recently updated with new features that fit into the school market. “We have introduced low-sound condenser fans that significantly reduce condenser fan noise and provide increased efficiency for our cooling systems. We have also introduced electronically commutated [EC] condenser fans that provide modulating refrigerant pressure control that results in improved performance on shoulder/part-load cooling days. On the heating technologies, we have developed a high-turn-down furnace that is capable of modulating control between 6 and 100 percent. This results in better temperature control as well as decreased operating costs due to better controllability. Finally, we have redesigned the smallest housing to offer 20 percent more outdoor air in the same footprint and cost that would provide an even better return on investment (ROI) for the school market.”

In addition to focusing on energy-efficiency improvements, academic communities are also leading the sustainability movement, said Greg Spencer, strategic cooperative program leader, Trane, an Ingersoll Rand brand.

“A sustainable campus is now a common expectation among students and faculty,” he said. “This has made it increasingly important for HVAC manufacturers to provide campus-wide solutions for indoor climate controls that conserve resources and energy, minimize the use of hazardous materials, and reduce pollution.”

One of the main growth drivers in the school market is the adoption of building management systems (BMS), Spencer explained. “Within the education market, K-12 buildings and universities are applying BMS in order to control the varying spaces they have, which range from the cafeteria to classrooms to offices. Facility operators are using the tools and connectivity that a BMS provides to receive data that not only helps them control IAQ and temperature to keep students, faculty, and staff comfortable and healthy but also helps increase efficiency and optimize building performance to achieve cost-saving objectives. In addition, many schools are using BMS to help manage after-hour use when evening and weekend activities are scheduled, which lowers energy use while still providing comfort, when needed. Remote and mobile access makes this easier than ever for the facility team manager.

“Another driver that is important to mention is that K-12 schools and universities are setting increasingly stringent climate and environmental goals to lower emissions and drive efficiency. Administrators are looking for building systems and technologies that help meet these goals,” he continued. “As technology has advanced, the ability to achieve an integrated system design that meets energy-efficiency goals is becoming easier to achieve and more sought after in the education market.”

Trane recently released a new compact vertical blower coil within its terminal products portfolio. The product is available as a single-zone variable air volume (VAV) system with Tracer™ UC400 controllers that delivers higher efficiency levels. Additional benefits include temperature stability, quiet operation, and dehumidification advantages for varying-occupancy space, which ensures student, faculty, and staff comfort, Spencer noted.


In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis placed on the importance of IAQ in schools as studies have found poor IAQ can impact student and staff attendance, comfort, and performance as well as deteriorate and reduce the efficiency of a school’s HVAC equipment.

“There is a definite push towards higher performance schools, and that includes energy efficiency as well as IAQ,” said Dan Jones, president, UV Resources. “The UV market has a big role to play in both energy efficiency and IAQ. UV keeps the HVAC equipment clean and therefore efficient by improving and maintaining heat transfer of coils. Keeping the a/c equipment clean also improves IAQ. UV-C technology can be applied to continuously reduce, or in some cases prevent, infectious pathogens from growing on or circulating in school air and surfaces. Overall, we have seen an upward trend in the use of UV-C in most all markets.”

UV Resources recently completed a large project with the San Bernardino, California, school district where virtually all of the district’s HVAC systems were retrofitted with UV.

“Many schools have packaged rooftop systems,” Jones said. “The UV Resources X-Plus product is easily installed on these types of systems. The X-Plus’s low price point, standard lamps, and lengthy warranty make it a natural addition to air conditioning systems to address a/c equipment efficiency and IAQ.”


According to Jason Peck, executive sales engineer at Daikin America LLC, Daikin’s variable refrigerant volume (VRV) product line is emerging as a popular choice for schools. “All the counties here in Georgia are interested, and a lot of them have already started integrating old schools and buildings,” he said. “The main reason VRV is popular is because it’s flexible and quick for installations for renovations and it provides exceptional IAQ as well as low indoor and outdoor sound levels. VRV systems are also easy to manage and maintain for the school’s maintenance group.”

Bill Harris, general manager – New York for Daikin Applied, agreed, saying, “Typically, schools can be slow to change without compelling reasons. For schools that are replacing rooftops, our Rebel’s advanced design delivers low radiated noise and low audible condenser fans. Plus, it results in an astounding 20.6 IEER and up to 41 percent energy savings compared to ASHRAE’s 90.1 energy standard. While Rebel has been one of Daikin’s best sellers in schools, we’ve also seen a much higher level of interest with VRV lately within the last two years or so, as the adoption rate is accelerating. Along with flexibility, these systems are clean, quiet, and efficient. Those are really the three prime benefits for an education market.

“VRV is the future,” Harris continued. “Everywhere else in the world, VRV/VRF technology is 80 percent of the market. The U.S. market is the last holdout. There are some statistics out there, something like one-third of all students miss up to one-third of oral communication because of noise and distractions. A lot of that relates to the HVAC systems in the classroom. Acoustics are a key component for education. These systems are quiet, both inside and outside. So, there are not any distractions in the classroom. And, it’s comfortable. It’s not an on-and-off technology; its variable inverter technology with variable heating and cooling capabilities, which offers tremendous energy savings.”

Modine Mfg. Co. has also placed an emphasis on the low sound levels of its Airdale brand single packaged vertical unit ventilators for classrooms. The manufacturer recently showcased the product’s low operating sound levels — below 45 dBa — on its Innovation Tour.

“ASHRAE 60.1’s improved ventilation requirements are driving a lot of the work we’re doing. While the standard has been around for years, it’s becoming increasingly relevant as more and more aging schools begin to update their equipment,” said Richard Boothman, director of North American Sales, Modine. “There is an improved or greater expectation on sound levels. The reason we had that unit running in the back of our Innovation Truck is so you could hear it and understand how quiet it would be in a classroom. We’re also starting to see places like Michigan, which is not known to be a particular hot state, with the need for air conditioning and dehumidification. Heat recovery is also becoming more common.”

In his experience, Boothman noted the school market typically follows the economy. “Our business has been fairly neutral for the last two to three years. Schools get money through bond approvals to raise money to approve projects. We didn’t really see a turndown until 2009-2010.  That’s when people stopped approving bonds. Things have improved and we’ve been seeing a slight increase again.”


In the Dallas area, most remodels follow existing installations, according to Ann Kahn, president of Kahn Mechanical Contractors. “The older schools have chilled water systems; however, in add-ons to these buildings, rooftop package units are used where feasible.”

Cost is extremely important for school districts, Kahn noted. “Cost is usually the deal maker for school district personnel. They are very careful with their spending and often disregard ROI [return on investment] and better cooling solutions to save dollars.  They tend to focus on minutia instead of looking at long-term results.”

Additionally, the school market is incredibly competitive for HVAC contractors. So much so that Kahn Mechanical elected to stop bidding on school jobs.

“Several challenges faced us when we did school remodels, including poor management, lack of construction knowledge on the part of school personnel, inefficient handling of change order requests, time loss caused by asbestos removal, school personnel’s refusal to pay for service work long after the end of the equipment’s warranty period, and slow payment of construction draws,” Kahn said.

Sam De Angelis, CEO of Colorado Climate Maintenance Inc. in Englewood, Colorado, said the school market is highly competitive, but it’s good work when you can get it.

“The problem is, because it’s public money, it’s a competitive bid situation,” he said. “The school districts we work with really do everything they can to be selective in who they allow to bid on work and then try to prequalify contractors. Even then, there’s always a few allowed to bid on work. It’s difficult because you have relationships with the facilities people at the schools who would really prefer to have one of two or three contractors do the work and only have those three supply bids. But, they have to open it up, which ends up hurting them.”

De Angelis said the replacement market is growing due to the large number of old schools.

“A lot of old, aging equipment out there has been deferred on replacement and repairs for a number of years, and it’s getting to the point where schools don’t have any choice, and they finally have some capital available. It’s continuing to grow and become a bigger market in our area.”

De Angelis said ROI is more important than initial cost for schools in his market. “They’re not taking the least expensive option for replacement equipment. Instead, they’re looking at the long term because, unlike office buildings, they know they’re going to be there for a long time and investing up front certainly pays off in the long run. Part of the reason, too, is they have major capital for expenditures and equipment replacement that comes out of a completely different pool from operating expenses. They are more willing to spend the money up front because they know they won’t have the money down the line in their operational budget.”

Additionally, schools present many challenges for contracting companies.

“The other part of the problem is the workload,” De Angelis said. “Typically, there’s a lot of stuff to get done in a very short period of time during the summer. And for most contractors, that’s generally their peak season for other services. The tight timeframe is a challenge while the sales cycle is generally long. The district will look at qualified bids and take a long period of time to make a decision, but as soon as they’re ready to go, they want you to jump through hoops to make it happen as soon as possible and have it completed in three weeks.

“We’re doing less and less work in schools, because the market is becoming more competitive,” he continued. “The relationships we had with the three school districts we work with have a threshold of what they can spend without having to make it a competitive bid. And we’ve done projects in cycles in order to keep it under that amount, but those jobs are becoming tougher to pass through. It’s good work; it just takes a lot of time and our success rate is getting lower and lower. I’m not sure if we’re going to continue moving down that road because of the time investment and because of the success rate in getting bids awarded.”

Publication date: 10/31/2016

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