8 May 2007 - 09:52
  • News Code: 104056

Bathroom breaks at James Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty are virtually hands-free.

Motion sensors turn on the lights. Waterless urinals require no flush. The low-flow faucets are touchless. Hands are dried with air, not paper.

The high-tech restrooms are only part of the two-year-old school’s larger effort to reduce energy use and save money. There’s geothermal heating, lots of natural light, and cabinets made from recycled wheat byproducts.

“You can’t put jam and butter on them and eat them, but it’s a more readily renewable building material,“ Principal Brad Laures said of the cabinets.

Educators and policymakers hope the school - named for the noted University of Iowa space researcher - will be a model for the next generation of public facilities. A portion of Gov. Chet Culver’s $100 million Iowa Power Fund proposal is earmarked for energy conservation initiatives.

But such “green“ steps lag in most Iowa schools, according to a report by the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, which concluded that districts are only in the “infancy stage“ of conservation.

Only about 15 percent of Iowa schools are considered “highly energy-efficient,“ the report said, while one-third are “not at all“ efficient.

It’s a bottom-line issue in Mason City.

“More and more school administrators in Iowa are becoming more aware of the costs out of our general budget for utilities,“ said Mason City Superintendent Keith Sersland. “As we go through renovating schools and school houses, we’re certainly looking at every possibility that we can to reduce those energy costs.“

Sersland’s district has lowered its energy bills by $1.3 million since the mid-1990s with geothermal heating and cooling, which requires underground wells.

Schools in Ankeny, Boone, Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Forest City, Iowa City, Muscatine, Oelwein, southeast Polk County and Spirit Lake have adopted the enviro-friendly systems under the premise that upfront costs are recouped in about seven years, said architect Chris DeGroot, who designed Willowwind School in Iowa City.

The private school is expected to be the first in Iowa certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system. Van Allen is rated “silver“; Willowwind, which will be finished this summer, aims for gold.

School administrators in both Iowa City and Mason City say natural light is the best thing about green design.

“If you’re sitting in a classroom on a sunny day, a light sensor determines how bright the natural lighting is coming in. It adjusts and dims the light,“ Laures said. “If it’s a really bright day out and the sun is fairly high in the sky, the lights will go right off.“

Heating, cooling, lighting and security systems that are controlled by a central computer and sensors can cut energy bills in half, he added.

But back to those fancy flushless toilets, which save up to 45,000 gallons of water per year.

A liquid cap traps urine in a cartridge. The urine sinks below the liquid sealant--alcohols and mineral oils--in the cartridge. The lighter oil floats, which seals the urine and sends it down the drain. The cartridge is replaced about twice a year.

Waterless urinals have also been installed in public restrooms at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, and in some new Wal-Mart stores in Texas and Colorado. A national plumbers union official has called waterless urinals “a step backwards in health,“ but an environmental microbiologist said they are more sanitary because there’s no handle to touch.

“They work great. It hasn’t produced any problems with odor,“ Iowa City’s Laures said. “We just let them know that those potties don’t flush. We haven’t had any problems with them.“

Well, maybe just a little problem:

“Every once in a while, parents say their children don’t think they have to do those things at home.“



News Code 104056

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