Ekalaka fifth graders score again in energy-efficiency competition

Southeast Electric CooperativeRedirecting to a non-government site and Ekalaka Elementary SchoolRedirecting to a non-government site students teamed up to take another run at America’s Home Energy ChallengeRedirecting to a non-government site, and once again proved that ordinary households can find ways to save energy, even during a hard Montana winter.

With an infrared camera borrowed from Western’s Equipment Loan Program, Ekalaka fifth-grader Jared Pardee tracks down energy leaks in his kitchen. His family led the class team to its second-place victory in America’s Home Energy Challenge for 2014. (Photo by Southeast Electric Cooperative)

With an infrared camera borrowed from Western’s Equipment Loan Program, Ekalaka fifth-grader Jared Pardee tracks down energy leaks in his kitchen. His family led the class team to its second-place victory in America’s Home Energy Challenge for 2014. (Photo by Southeast Electric Cooperative)

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 MoneyRedirecting to a non-government site 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 PlanetariumRedirecting to a non-government site 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.

Montana co-op borrows tools, coaches students to energy championship

Note: This story originally appeared in the Energy Services Bulletin for June 2012.

Winning the America’s Home Energy Education Challenge was a big victory for the students of Carter County, Mont., and Western is proud to have played a small role in the team’s success through our customer Southeast Electric Cooperative.

Southeast Electric Member Services Rep. Marlene Waterland shows students from Hawks Home School the different types of light bulbs on the lighting display, borrowed from Western’s Equipment Loan Program. (Photo by Southeast Electric Cooperative)


Teaching energy awareness

The team of five schools split a prize of $15,000 for tracking and reducing home energy use over three months. The Department of Energy created the national school competition to educate students and their families about the opportunities to save money by saving energy. Teams of third through eighth grade students worked with their science teachers and local utility companies to develop energy savings plans that reduce the amount of energy used to power their homes.

Marlene Waterland of Southeast Electric coordinated the program for Alzada Elementary School, Carter County High School, Ekalaka Elementary School, Hammond School and Hawks Home School. Using a lighting efficiency display and infrared cameras from Western’s Equipment Loan Program, the member services representative introduced students to different ways of thinking about energy waste and efficiency. “The displays are excellent teaching tools that we couldn’t afford otherwise,” Waterland said.

“It was great to be able to help Southeast Electric Cooperative and Marlene inspire these kids to apply their math and science skills to a real-life problem—how to save money by using energy efficiently at home,” said Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann.

Showing and telling

One of Western’s most popular educational tools, the lighting display shows how new technology can save energy using equipment everyone has in their homes—light bulbs.  The new lighting display incorporates lamps that may still be unfamiliar to consumers. “A lot of our customers are still trying to adjust to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs),” Waterland admitted. “It helps for them to see the different Kelvin ratings, and learn that they can buy brighter lights.”

The long-lasting cold cathode bulb, which is designed to be used outdoors in cold temperatures, also peaked student interest. “They could see how it could be useful for saving energy specifically in Montana,” said Waterland.

Southeast Electric Cooperative frequently borrows Western’s IR cameras to perform free home energy audits for its customers. Using the tool to teach 7th and 8th graders about energy losses gave Waterland the chance to do a “commercial” for Southeast’s free home energy audit program. She also took the camera to another school in the utility’s territory that wasn’t participating in the Challenge. “I try to schedule as many appointments and events as possible when I have Western equipment checked out,” she explained.

She walked the students of the small country school through a preliminary energy audit, showing them how the camera worked and what to look for. During the audit, the students discovered that a furnace filter had not been properly installed, so they were able to correct a problem.

All talents welcomed

The students of Carter County School District turned out to be quick—and creative—studies. They talked to their family members about energy- and money-saving steps they could take, including turning off the lights when leaving the room and running the laundry machine with cooler water and full loads. In an agricultural community, using timers for engine block heaters for tractors turned out to be a big saver.

It wasn’t only what the students did, but how they did it that earned them the award. Some students went right for the dollars and cents, Waterland recalled. “Southeast publishes fact sheets that give the monthly costs for running appliances, and they put those to good use,” she said. “You could see how the project pushed them to apply their math skills.”

Others applied their imagination to energy planning, with one sixth grade class writing fiction stories about saving energy. The national competition included a poster contest that gave artistically inclined students a way to encourage their families and communities to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. Southeast awarded its own prize of $50 for the best local poster.

Local buy-in

To sharpen the local competition, Southeast also offered a $100 prize to the family that saved the most energy during the competition. “Of the 49 students participating, 20 families reduced their energy use, and the winner saved 41 percent,” Waterland said. “The family told us that their daughter ran around the house every night unplugging everything.”

Winning America’s Home Energy Education Challenge required focus, teamwork and long hours—and not just from the students. “It was demanding competition and the teachers were really good at keeping everyone on task,” said Waterland.

Waterland considers the 177 hours she spent coordinating the schools’ participation a worthwhile investment. “Southeast is a relatively small utility—only 900 customers and 2,000 meters—and we all support the community,” she explained. “Winning this competition is a source of pride for everyone.”

But the prize is more than just hometown pride, or even $15,000. It’s seeing students get excited about using math and science, and discovering creative ways to apply new skills. It’s teaching young people and their families to treat energy as the valuable resource to be used thoughtfully. And it’s preparing tomorrow’s consumers to work as partners with their utilities. “A student called me recently to find out whether it costs more to run a computer or a toaster, so they are still exploring how to save energy,” Waterland said. “There will be another competition, and these kids will be ready for it.”

Western customers can borrow educational displays—or other tools—from our Equipment Loan Program free of charge. You pay only for return shipping. Reserve your equipment online, or call Gary Hoffmann at 720-962-7420.