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Geothermal Systems are a Breath of Fresh Air for Illinois School District

May 24, 2010 - 11:01am


Each classroom has a geothermal unit installed. Although large, the units blend into surroundings and don’t produce excess noise. | Photo Courtesy of Sterling Public Schools

Each classroom has a geothermal unit installed. Although large, the units blend into surroundings and don’t produce excess noise. | Photo Courtesy of Sterling Public Schools

Superintendent Tad Everett had two priorities when deciding on a new system to replace the aging oil-based boiler heating and cooling systems for the seven schools in his district: improving learning environments and saving on energy.

 “Once we began researching possibilities, it didn’t take us long to realize that our best option was geothermal energy,” says Everett.

With two geothermal systems installed and one under construction, northeastern Illinois’s Sterling Public School District is well on its way to achieving better learning environments and cutting energy costs.

Since they made the change to geothermal two years ago, both Jefferson Elementary School and Franklin Elementary School have seen a rise in student attendance. Everett says both buildings are recording their highest attendance rates in years.

“The geothermal system has been beneficial because our children are more alert as a result of the clean air and the comfortable temperature,” says Lisa Lobdell, a first-grade teacher at Jefferson. “It is simply more pleasant for all to be at school.”

According to Ron Rick, the principal at Jefferson, the geo-units in each classroom do not take up any teaching space and blend well into the classroom surroundings.

“They are quiet and do not cause unnecessary noise in the classroom, reducing noise levels from previous fans and air conditioners,” he says. “The air in the classrooms feels much cleaner.”

Geothermal heat pump systems tap into the Earth’s natural temperature about 10 feet below the surface. The system, made up of pipes buried close to the building, a heat exchange and ductwork into the building, uses the Earth’s temperature to make less severe changes in heating in cooling.  In winter, heat from the relatively warmer ground goes through a heat exchanger into the building. During the summer, hot air is pulled through the heat exchanger into the cooler ground temperatures.  

 “We’ve had these systems for almost two years, and I cannot say enough about the advantages they’ve provided our district financially and environmentally,” says Everett. “We were trying to improve the learning environment for our students and staff by improving air quality. The installation of these systems allowed us to meet that goal.”

Funding changes

In addition to air quality, Sterling is seeing incredible results with savings. The utility bills for these two buildings plummeted and both schools no longer rely on any natural gas for fuel.

Jefferson Elementary School — with a boiler system that was more than 40 years old — has seen a 60 percent reduction in total energy usage, while Franklin Elementary School has seen a 40 percent reduction.  

To finance the project, the district utilized multiple revenue sources. Besides community partnerships, the district secured Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZAB) and grant from the Department of Commerce.  

“The ability to acquire revenue…was a great opportunity. It essentially made the project possible,” says Everett.

Spreading savings to all seven schools

Everett’s goal as superintendent is to have the district entirely geothermal within the next 10 years. Construction is already underway with the installation of its next geothermal system, this time at Challand Middle School. Everett says they are currently drilling the well-fields for the middle school project, and will have the new geothermal heating and cooling system in place when students return to school in the fall.  

The final and largest school to switch to geothermal will be Sterling High School. It currently houses approximately 1,100 students, and because of the building’s size, will be a multi-step, multi-year process.  

“Our plan is to continue installing the geothermal systems, but that will be entirely based on what revenue streams are available,” says Everett. The district will continue to look at different funding opportunities, including bonds, grants and more community partnerships. The next steps in the plan will be to convert two more elementary schools to geothermal units by 2013.

With such a supportive community, Everett is able to begin discussing plans for the district’s energy efficiency in the distant future. He hopes to address the school’s total electricity usage by having the schools supply their own electricity — perhaps by some technology that’s yet to be invented.  

“In order for goals to be achieved, they must first be envisioned,” says Everett. “I give our district and the community of Sterling a lot of credit. Our geothermal schools are an example of us partnering together to do just that.”