Southeast Electric Cooperative and Ekalaka Elementary School students teamed up to take another run at America’s Home Energy Challenge, and once again proved that ordinary households can find ways to save energy, even during a hard Montana winter.
The fifth-grade class tied for second place with four other teams from around the nation by reducing their collective home energy use .616 percent in September, October and November of 2013, compared to the same three months in 2012. If that achievement didn’t quite reach the heights of 2011, when the school district took the top national prize of $15,000, it was still impressive, noted Southeast Member Services Representative Marlene Waterland. “Our goal was to save 3 percent over the previous year, but the winter was so cold, we were lucky to show any savings at all,” she said.
Secret is training
Waterland, who coordinated the utility’s support of both competitions, worked with teacher Barbara Elmore to organize this year’s game plan.
Before the 10 participating students started the competition, they had to learn a little about electricity. The class studied electricity vocabulary words and reviewed a pie chart on energy use. Elmore taught them how to calculate kilowatt-hours (kWh) for routine home activities like cooking, doing laundry or watching TV. “Getting kids to see how they can apply math to everyday problems is a valuable takeaway from the Challenge,” Waterland said.
Waterland supplied fact sheets on insulation and fuel cost comparison for options like propane, electricity, wood and coal. Students received copies of Touchstone Energy’s 101 Easy Ways to Save Energy and Money and compared appliance energy use with Waterland. “When homeowners are ready to replace an old appliance, it helps if their children, and not just their utility, are talking about Energy Star,” she observed.
Collecting data, calculating use
As part of the educational process, participating families got a home energy audit, courtesy of Southeast. “Marlene borrowed the FLIR EX320 infrared camera,” said Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann. “It’s good for home inspections because it is one of our easiest to use models—you point it at the target like a flashlight—and it still gives you a high-quality picture.”
Waterland used the camera to find leaks in ductwork, windows and doors; and to show heat loss around furnaces, hot water heaters and other appliances. The audit also included comparing the home electrical use for past 36 months and sharing information on calculating kWh use for electrical appliances and do-it-yourself meter reading. “The homeowner can borrow a Kill-A-Watt reader if they want to get specific energy use for an appliance,” she said.
Kids with plans
The measures the students chose for their plans were mainly the kind of low- and no-cost behavior changes that utilities (and frugal families) have been promoting to customers for decades. Turning off lights in empty rooms, only doing full loads of laundry or dishes and sealing around windows and doors were popular choices. Since most families use engine block heaters to ensure that vehicles and tractors can start after a cold night, students learned how to put the heaters on timers.
Some measures offered unintended dividends, as students proposed to save energy by reading more and using the computer less, or watching TV with the family instead of alone in their rooms. “One kid came up with the idea of playing board games or hide-and-go-seek when friends came over instead of playing video games,” Waterland recalled.
She added that many plans involved getting other members of the family to change their habits. Several students decided that their siblings should take shorter showers or turn off their stereos, while another asked his mother to do fewer loads of laundry. Others tried to shift the energy use to somebody else’s household. “One participant suggested that his grandmother could bake the Thanksgiving pies and dinner rolls so his family didn’t have to use the oven,” laughed Waterland.
Tuning up strategy
After the first month of the competition, it was clear that the fifth grade team was not getting the hoped-for results. “September of 2013 was three degrees warmer than the average, but both October and November were colder than average,” observed Waterland. “People were staying inside more and using their heating appliances more. The team’s energy use actually went up 3 percent.”
To refocus the young energy savers, Waterland did a recap of energy conservation measures using town’s recent retrofit of its Christmas decorations to illustrate the principles of saving energy. To encourage more use of math as a tool, Elmore asked participants to calculate the dollar savings for their measures. One student took the suggestion and figured out that turning down his home’s water heater would save the family $120 per year. Not surprisingly, that student’s family led the competition, using only 3,856 kWh compared to 7,536 kWh in 2012.
Good to play, win
The tie for second place earned the Ekalaka fifth graders $1,000 in prize money, which will fund a class field trip to the Campbell County School District Planetarium in Gillette, Wyo.
Waterland believes that the benefits of participating in America’s Home Energy Challenge go beyond prize money, however. “It helps our next generation of consumers to understand energy use, and starts developing habits that will save them money and energy in their own homes,” she said.
It also gives Southeast Electric Cooperative another bond with its customers. “I love going into the schools and meeting with the teachers, kids and families,” Waterland declared. “I hope we do the Challenge next year and I would like to see other Western customers join the competition,” she added.