Blount County Schools hopes it can fund building improvements with guaranteed savings from more energy efficient systems.

The Board of Education gave unanimous approval Thursday for Trane to conduct an energy performance audit on its 21 schools at no cost to the district.

BCS spends about $3.2 million annually on utilities, and Trane already estimated the district could save about $615,000 with more efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, lighting, windows, roofs and more.

The district could use that savings to pay back money borrowed to fund the improvements, Trane representatives explained to the board during a work session last month.

“It’s a way to fund things you want to have done with money you’re currently giving to the utility companies,” Owen M. Nevader, comprehensive solutions leader for Trane, explained at that meeting.

Trane first will focus on Heritage and William Blount high schools, with that part of the audit estimated to take less than 90 days, but then it will analyze every campus.

High school priorities

Both 40-year-old high schools have problems with moisture intrusion, and the school board has proposed a nearly $100 million renovation plan. The Blount County Commission has approved about $4 million in funding for the renovations this year under Fund 177, a portion of property taxes not split with the city school districts.

BCS Director Rob Britt began the work session by commenting on the high school situation.

“We have some very complex problems around HVAC, especially at William Blount,” he said. “It’s complex because of the design of the system, because of the moisture intrusion that exists there and because of the dehumidification that’s required there.”

“We almost feel like we’ve been trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, because four million just doesn’t fit around some of the things that we’d like to do. We also want to do some science labs,” Britt said, mentioning another priority for the renovations.

He explained to board members then that he learned Weakley County Schools in the northwest part of the state had been almost a “carbon copy” of William Blount and Heritage, with similar problems related to moisture intrusion, mold and uncomfortable temperatures in its schools.

“We can have one classroom at 80 degrees today at William Blount and a classroom sitting right next door to it could be at 56 degrees — or feel like it anyway,” Britt said, comparing the high school’s commons area to “a frozen tundra.”

“You’ll see young people with blankets and sweaters in the middle of August,” he said.

But Britt said Weakley County’s superintendent was very happy after working with Trane, which also has worked with Knox and Jefferson counties, among others.

Trane has worked with HHS for about five years to bring energy costs down at that campus.

Guaranteed savings

Trane’s Energy Services Group now is offering BCS a guaranteed performance contract.

After the preliminary audit the district could move on to an “investment grade audit.” That would provide a detailed list of energy conservation measures for each school with costs and estimated savings. The school officials then could choose what, if anything, to do.

If the district proceeds with the plan, Trane would be paid as the general contractor for the project. Otherwise the district would reimburse Trane only for the value of that second audit, Nevader explained.

School officials would select their preferences for any equipment, and there would be no obligation to buy Trane products.

Trane would guarantee an amount of energy savings every year, and if the savings fall short Trane would pay the schools the difference.

An earlier analysis of the high schools recommended removing and replacing most of the outer brick, which is crumbling in many places, to deal with the moisture intrusion problem attributed to the construction method used in the late 1970s.

During the work session board member Jim Compton asked, “Is this going to take care of the water at William Blount without tearing the brick off the building?”

Nevader’s short answer: “I don’t know.”

Districts currently can borrow up to $5 million under the state’s Energy Efficient Schools Initiative at interest rates of 1.5% to 2%. In Blount County, Nevader said, “there’s probably a whole lot more than $5 million (in improvements) that would self fund.”

One option might be borrowing through the county with a capital outlay note that the schools would pay back from the savings.

Nevader said in an interview before Thursday’s school board vote that with a “blitz” approach at the high schools and the necessary approvals work on energy improvements could begin over summer break in 2020.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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