Editor’s note: This post was updated with a couple of corrections and clarifications on Oct 20.

Energy efficiency retrofits in schools do more than just save money on utility bills. They can also make schools better places to learn. Consider the Hockinson school district outside of Vancouver, WA.

The controls system in their intermediate building wasn’t operating as efficiently as it could, leaving classrooms too hot or too cold. But after an upgrade to the system?

“We’re getting much better zone control. And the system is set up to operate within half a degree, instead of three degrees,” said Joe Comstock, maintenance supervisor for the district,.

That means they can better adjust temperatures throughout the buildings to make them as comfortable as possible. They also replaced an all-electric chiller in the intermediate school with a heat pump chiller. Across the district, they’ve also replaced lighting fixtures and fine-tuned occupancy sensors, and implemented water conservation measures like flush meters and aerators.

As Hockinson’s experience shows, investing in new, more efficient heating and cooling systems can help improve students’ basic comfort in the classroom—the place where they spend a bulk of their days. Just so, the school’s new lighting systems have made it easier for kids to see and read. “Everything we’ve done has improved teacher and student use,” said Comstock.

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  • And then there’s the money the district is saving on utility bills–$33,000 a year across all buildings (a large portion of which came from the new controls system and chiller), a figure that does not count what they would have spent to maintain and repair the aging systems they’ve replaced. Altogether, the projects cost around $750,000, which might sound like a lot—but it results not only in energy savings, but also improved classroom comfort and better lighting to boot.

    This month, Hockinson is applying for another round of funding from the state to retrofit their high school building. Even though the building was only built in 2003, there’s quite a bit of savings to be realized by installing new CO2 and occupancy sensors, recommissioning the building, and tweaking controls and timers.

    What would the district like to do in the future? They could use a new HVAC system in their High School. If 14 classrooms are too cold, but 5 are too hot, the heater kicks in for all rooms—leaving kids sweaty and uncomfortable. They’d like to replace it with a geothermal system for some big energy savings. But that’d cost around $2.5 million dollars—money the district doesn’t have right now. Grants issued under Referendum 52, up for a public vote in this fall’s election, would fund just this kind of smart fix.

    If R-52 passes, Washington schools will have $500 million they can use to replace, upgrade, and fine-tune buildings that not only shrink energy bills but also keep kids healthy, comfortable, and ready to learn.