April 11, 2017

5 minutes with Dr. Nagler from Mineola Public Schools

Mineola School District is using the IEPC approach to convert the steam distribution networks at Hampton Street School, Jackson Avenue School, and the Middle School to hot water networks. This is the first steam-to-hot-water (STHW) conversion project in a NYS school district through an EPC. A hot water network can perform the same heating functions as a steam network but is significantly more efficient and easier to control. Dr. Michael Nagler, Superintendent at Mineola Public Schools, spoke exclusively to Ecosystem’s Ahmed Ibrahim about this groundbreaking project.

Dr. Michael Nagler, Superintendent at Mineola Public Schools, spoke exclusively to Ecosystem’s Ahmed Ibrahim about this groundbreaking project.

Ahmed: Mineola used an EPC RFP for energy renovations and energy upgrades. This project includes a large steam to hot water (STHW) conversion; it started out in two schools and now it includes three. This is the first time a NY school has done this kind of work under an EPC. Traditionally it’s just a steam system upgrade and trap replacements. What will the STHW conversion bring to the district in terms of value and comfort?

Dr. Nagler: When you’re dealing with buildings from the 1920s and the 30s and you have not done infrastructure work for 40-50 years, there are inherent problems that occur, particularly with steam. Steam is an intensive maintenance problem in all our buildings, between the traps and the pipes — when buried pipes break, we have to dig up ground, and we’ve done that in several buildings several times over the last five years.
It makes sense, when we’re looking at energy efficiency, that if we can find better systems, we make an initial investment that’s going to pay forward in our buildings. I’m very much about fixing problems, finding current technology to replace aging infrastructure and then paying that forward over time.

Ahmed: Do you think that this will have an impact on the classroom environment? Has this been something that the community, the classroom, and the faculty, have been living with as well? Or is it mostly an infrastructure issue?

Dr. Nagler: School systems traditionally don’t invest enough in their buildings. Capital work and capital upgrades are the first thing that get cut out of the budget. That’s a very costly mistake because over time you’re dealing with major renovations because of past neglect.
Steam is an ancient heating system. I don’t think any architect would recommend it in a new building today. Many alternatives are more eco friendly and more cost effective.
So if you have the opportunity, why not upgrade and get a better solution? Ultimately, we want the most comfortable environment for our kids and our teachers. It’s very difficult to learn when you’re uncomfortable, whether you’re too cold or you’re too hot. So we’re looking to renovate all our buildings with comfort at the forefront.

Ahmed: What does it mean to you when we say that an integrated energy performance project is more than the sum of its parts?

Dr. Nagler: When I’m typically looking at an EPC — and this is the third one I’ve been involved with in this district — I’m thinking about how I am going to get my bang for my buck. With lighting, we know the technology means that there are great cost savings in the way we can light buildings, and we can realize those energy savings over time. Several of my colleagues and I are skeptical about how those savings are quantified, and there are a number of different methodologies. Sometimes it’s smoke and mirrors, to be quite blunt.
What we love about the project we’re undertaking with Ecosystem is it’s on the meter. Let’s go to the meter, get the baseline, and demonstrate definitively we save money, and the money that we save is paying for the whole project.
So what’s the biggest bang for my buck, how can I change my infrastructure over time to make sure I’m putting in a better system and ultimately, I’m not paying for it because the savings pay for the work? I was happy to learn that we could do the steam system. That combination of different pieces in this EPC is what really attracted me.

Ahmed:  When we’re designing an EPC, we also look at what we’re leaving behind so we can simplify maintenance and operations in the district. When we added the third school to the STHW conversion, were you thinking about the fact that this standardizes the systems across the buildings for the years to come?

Dr. Nagler: Yes, standardization is very attractive. First, of course, we have to be able to afford it. Can we incur the debt and still pay forward?
The second piece is standardization. If we have one system and we can hire one company to maintain all our heating and cooling, that’s what we want to do.
In Hampton we’ve had more issues with steam than in any other building. It was the biggest pain in the neck and the most costly because it was the biggest headache, so why wouldn’t I want to do it?

Ahmed: But you could have gone with an easier EPC approach — let’s put new insulation on the traps, let’s replace all the traps, even though traps have a three-to-four year lifespan, but an EPC lasts 15 or 18 years. That could have been an easier route and probably would generate a good amount of savings without all that headache and costs.

Dr. Nagler: Doing it once and doing it correctly is better than putting a band-aid on something that you know is going bleed again. You can “pretty much” fix the problem, but you know it’s still a problem. I’d rather eliminate the problem and know that when I’m no longer working, I’m not leaving something behind that my successor will curse me for.

Ahmed: From our perspective, the value of what an EPC brings to a community, a project, a school district is not in aggregate measures that may be smoke and mirrors in how savings are calculated, but in trying to get the best value engineering.

Dr. Nagler: With some technologies, like lighting, the advances in technology mean that there is a clear benefit; if you swap out fixtures, you can save money on electricity and it’s worth doing. But outside of lighting, what are the infrastructure pieces that you would do and not have to visit again? STHW is a different kind of heat — you’re not going to do that again. You’re going to do it once, you’re going to get a better system, and you’re going to leave it alone. And that EPC pays for itself well past the debt service that you will incur.

Ahmed: You’re going out to the public for their vote for a $5 million infrastructure project. Do they understand that this administration is so keen on trying to find ways to get things done without debt and you’re doing this EPC as well? What do you think their reaction will be?

Dr. Nagler: There are two different kinds of projects, and we try to educate our community on the benefits of both. In the past, when we bonded capital work, it was for roofs, boilers, windows, and doors. People don’t really see where the money was going. When we do capital projects out of our capital reserve fund, we’ve saved money to do an upgrade like a turf field, a second gymnasium, or cafeteria renovations. These contribute to a better experience for the kids and add to our buildings. The EPC is better for infrastructure because it is designed to save money and pay for itself.

Ahmed: Are you optimistic about the response on your capital project?

Dr. Nagler: We’re not incurring debt. We’re saving money and then spending it, which is more fiscally responsible. So, yes, I am optimistic. This is the third project we’re doing, and we continue to deliver new facilities for our kids that are appropriate for 2017 and beyond.

Ahmed: In the EPC, you could have decided to capture low-hanging fruit measures and maybe generate more scope. In this instance, there were many other measures that could have been included in this project that have perceived energy savings and that would have even made this a bigger project.

Dr. Nagler: You have to know your building, and you have to know what problems you’re trying to solve. And if you’re not solving a problem, don’t do an EPC. There’s no reason to do it. So it’s a tripod: the work you need; the solution presented; and the savings generated — and all three of those have to make sense when you connect the dots. If they don’t make sense, then don’t do the project. I understand that people are going to reach and give me a little more than I need, so I have to sit back and ask myself whether I am reaching with them, or whether I am happy with the smaller scope.

Ahmed: When colleagues ask you for advice about EPCs, what do you tell them?

Dr. Nagler: You have to know what you want. You have to consult with your facilities director and the people who know your buildings to understand what the problems are and what you’re trying to solve. The company providing the EPC needs to show the savings to make it all work, so there are going to be things like lights. We replaced lights five years ago, why do I need to do it again? But that’s where the biggest savings are. So, we have to include that measure in the project so that we get something else — that’s the balance you want to work out when you engage in an EPC.

It’s got to be a solution to a problem. For us, one of the EPCs wanted to put software on the computers to shut them down. We did it. The software didn’t work, and it caused more headaches than  solutions. And I don’t want any part of it.