The Oak Park and River Forest High School building may date back more than a century, but the school has so dramatically improved its energy efficiency in the past four years that it recently earned the Energy Star designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. OPRFHS earned 97 out of a possible 100 points in its application for the Energy Star.
To qualify for the star, the building had to meet standards in four areas:
- Energy performance in the top 25 percent of similar existing buildings.
- Thermal comfort, which is the ability to remain within a designated average temperature range (68-73 degrees in the warmer months, and 70-75 degrees in the colder months).
- Indoor air quality, which includes meeting standards for fresh air circulation and reducing CO2 emissions and other pollutants to acceptable levels.
- Illuminance levels, which designate the amount of light that must be present in classrooms and offices.
According to the latest numbers from Energy Star, just 122 K-12 school buildings in Illinois carry the Energy Star designation.
The District’s move toward superior energy efficiency began in 2009, when Director of Buildings and Grounds Robert ZumMallen began looking into replacing some fan units. “At that time,” ZumMallen recalls, “we had two units from 1906 that weren’t running. We had about 60 classrooms fed by those two units that weren’t getting any fresh air at all.” ZumMallen ended up creating a plan that ultimately will replace all of the building’s 77 units by 2021-2022. “By doing this, we’ve improved the health of students and staff, as well as the learning environment.”
The most significant savings boost came after the 2010 replacement of hot-water boilers at the Athletics end of the building. Half the school’s hot water use comes from the pools, showers, and sinks in the Field House there. The District’s energy costs dropped so significantly—$200,000 in the first year alone—that questions were raised at the District’s annual audit. The auditors didn’t understand how the District could be spending so much less on energy. For fiscal year 2012 (the 2011-2012 school year), the District spent $427,444 less on natural gas and electricity than it did during the baseline year of 2009.
Students have gotten in on the move to save energy too. At the beginning of last school year, senior Truman McGee asked ZumMallen if he could do a study of the high school's exterior lighting for his final project in astronomy. Truman ended up creating an elaborate spreadsheet with recommendations for using a more energy-efficient LED lighting system that will save the District more than $1,800 in energy costs. The District already has begun implementing his recommendations. "I decided to go for it for the grade," Truman told the Board of Education in a March 2013 presentation. "I never thought it would go this far!"