By Terry Hatfield

Educational institutions across the country are working to provide a safe learning environment within the rapidly changing environment of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some institutions, this means implementing new health and safety measures to welcome students back; and for others it means keeping buildings shut down and supporting remote learning.

Some of the precautions institutions are taking to keep students safe during this school year will mean increased expenses (often in the wake of budget cuts). Many sustainability managers are struggling to find ways to implement energy and water efficiency in this environment, but by being attentive and thoughtful, we can help keep our populations safe while managing energy and water costs. Here are some ways you can stay safe and also take control of your energy and water expenses.

Preparations for Reopening

If your school has decided to hold in-person classes, the following considerations can help individuals remain safe while balancing building energy and water costs. Before opening up buildings, consider if your campus facilities can be consolidated or buildings can be repurposed while still meeting local, state, and federal safety requirements. As online options for learning become available, there may be an opportunity to keep some buildings or building zones closed to limit energy and water consumption.

For example, if a building at your institution is used minimally and other buildings are used more frequently, consider consolidating functions temporarily so you’re not paying to operate both buildings.

HVAC Considerations

  • Bring in fresh air, to buildings, from the outside
  • Increase the amount of air ventilation to help reduce the amount of stale air being recirculated in your building. Note that during periods of heavy wildfire smoke, recirculation may be a better option.
  • The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends running heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for at least one week before students return to your educational institution.
  • Start flushing the air in your building at least two hours before students, faculty, and staff arrive each day. During warmer months, you can save energy by bringing in outside air early in the day, when it is cooler outside. Doing this early in the day will reduce the amount of air conditioning the building may need later in the day.
  • Improve Air Filtration
    • ASHRAE recommends upgrading outside air filters to at least Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 where appropriate. These filters remove much smaller particles, but also increase the energy use of your HVAC equipment. Evaluate if MERV 13 filters are right for your buildings, as some HVAC systems are not designed to operate with them.
    • Consider having your building HVAC system balanced to ensure that improved filtration, especially in combination with increased outside air ventilation, does not cause any unwanted outcomes. Having the building HVAC system balanced can also identify opportunities to save energy while keeping the people inside comfortable.
  • With a high presence of wildfires and smoke in the Western United States currently, improved air filtration can also help improve air quality in buildings.
  • Service HVAC Equipment
    • Conduct a formal tune-up of building systems, considering priority buildings first. Some energy utilities have incentives, to support building HVAC equipment tune-ups, that help reduce costs.
    • Make sure cooling coils on rooftop HVAC equipment are clean, to lower energy use and increase the comfort of those inside the space – especially as the level of ventilation from the outside rises.
  • Other considerations to help maintain a safe environment and reduce energy use in different types of spaces can be found here.

Water Considerations

Legionella and other biofilm-associated bacteria can grow and spread in a plumbing system or in a cooling tower that has been stagnant over a period of weeks or months. Learn more about Legionnaires’ Disease here. Consider taking the following steps to limit risk:

  • Flush Water Lines
    • Flush both hot and cold water lines from all taps to replace the water in the pipes with fresh water. Hot water lines should be flushed until the water reaches at least 120°F. The length of time needed to replace the water depends on building, pipe, and equipment size.
  • Inspect and Clean Cooling Towers
    • If your institution has a cooling tower, the cooling tower and the catch basin should be cleaned by removing visible slime, debris, and biofilm before use. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for cleaning cooling towers is available here.

Energy and Water Actions While Closed

If your educational institution is closed, be sure to take the following actions to reduce energy and water while buildings are unoccupied.

  • Shut off non-essential equipment by taking these steps:
    • Turn off all lights in classrooms and offices, and unplug floor and table lamps in dorms and offices
    • Unplug vending machines
    • Unplug appliances like mini-fridges, coffee makers, and microwaves in dorms and offices
    • Shut down computers, monitors, copiers, and printers; and turn off the power strips into which they are connected
    • Unplug electronics like speakers, TVs, and other electronics in dorms and offices
    • Shut down shop equipment such as compressors
  • Set back temperatures 7-10 degrees during unoccupied times and adjust the schedule to match expected building hours.
  • Reduce the number of days plants and lawns are irrigated, as appropriate.

While buildings are closed, there may also be an opportunity to take advantage of empty spaces that could be used to complete energy and water reduction projects, where budgets allow. Incentives are available at the federal, state, and local utility levels to help offset some of the cost of these projects. Check here for some state incentive offers near you.

Here are some no- to low-cost tips to reduce energy and water consumption:

  • Have your building recommissioned, or have an energy audit performed to identify inexpensive opportunities to save energy
  • Insulate water heaters and adjust settings to “warm” or 120°F
  • Install light-emitting diode (LED) lighting to replace incandescent or compact fluorescent lighting, in high-use areas, to reduce electricity use. Or, consider removing unnecessary lightbulbs from classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and libraries that are over-lit – to bring lighting to a more comfortable level
  • Install weather stripping and caulking to seal air leaks around exterior doors and windows
  • Install ceiling fans in gymnasiums – to help circulate cooler air in the summer and warmer air in the winter
  • Replace older kitchen equipment for more efficient ENERGY STAR® appliances that will save both energy and water
  • Swap out restroom fixtures for low-flow and water-saving models
  • Install aerators on sink faucets

You may also want to consider larger projects to save even more, including installing LED lighting building-wide, installing variable frequency drives (VFDs) on pumps, upgrading to high efficiency heating and cooling equipment such as boilers and chillers, or implementing other recommendations from building audits and recommissioning efforts.

About the Author – With a keen sense of economic impacts, Terry has a strong background in utility data analysis, energy efficiency strategies, and greenhouse gas accounting. He has extensive experience navigating utility programs and processes, developing and implementing renewable energy strategies, developing measurement and verification techniques, and managing energy efficiency programs across a range of building types. Terry is uniquely able to communicate complex technical and financial information to a broad audience to influence decision making, buy-in, and impactful project outcomes.

At Brendle Group, Terry supports community energy planning, data management and analytics, cost-benefit analyses, and energy and sustainability dashboard development. Terry uses his technical and fiscal expertise to build and inform the business case for increased energy efficiency, renewable energy adoption, and sustainable development.


ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force – Schools & Universities. (2020, 08 16). Retrieved from ASHRAE:

Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency®. (2020, 08 16). Retrieved from DSIRE:

Reopening Buildings After Shutdown. (2020, 08 16). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Reopening of Schools and Universities. (2020, 08 16). Retrieved from ASHRAE:

Resource Center: Dealing with COVID-19. (2020, 08 16). Retrieved from Better Buildings – U.S. Department of Energy: