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Newton

‘Green’ lighting at school has hitch

Hallways stay aglow throughout night

Occupancy sensors automatically switch off lights in classrooms at Newton North High, but none were installed in halls.

George B. Rizer for the Boston Globe/File 2010

Occupancy sensors automatically switch off lights in classrooms at Newton North High, but none were installed in halls.

Newton North High School has the most efficient light bulbs and a sophisticated online system that allows workers to control energy use remotely. But turning off the hallway lights in the state’s most expensive high school poses a problem.

The three-year-old building cost more than $190 million to build. Darkening its hallways is more complicated than just flipping a switch, however, and the fix will cost the city another $20,000.

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Far into most nights, the long corridors that stretch through the school shine brightly, and its glass-encased entrance serves as a beacon in the neighborhood.

While the classrooms have occupancy sensors that can pick up motion and body heat, and turn off the lights when nobody is in the room for 30 minutes, the hallways aren’t equipped with the same technology, said Mike Cronin, the school district’s chief of operations.

Newton is planning to install oxygen sensors throughout the halls of the building this summer in an effort to solve the lighting problem, said Bob Rooney, the city’s chief operating officer.

The sensors will be timed to turn off lights if nobody is in that part of the hall, Rooney said.

An electrical engineering firm is designing the system, and the installation work will then be put out to bid, he said.

“We’ve been working with the school department to find a corrective solution that works for everybody,” Rooney said.

City and school officials said they weren’t sure why the sensor technology wasn’t included in hallways when Newton North was built. But there are no fire codes that require all hallways to be lighted when one person is inside the building, Rooney said.

As long as the exit signs and other emergency lights are on, the school should be within code, Rooney said.

The city should be able to recoup the cost of the sensors within a few months by having the lights off for six or seven hours every night, he said.

Even without the savings, Rooney said, he understands the impression an illuminated building leaves, especially in Newton, where residents take their Garden City nickname to heart.

“It has the appearance of we’re not doing the most on the conservation of resources,” Rooney said.

The new Newton North was specifically designed with an eye to energy conservation, and it received a gold certification in green-building standards. But managing the complicated technology that makes the building so “green” — and understanding all of its wrinkles — has been challenging, officials said.

“It’s a blessing of a building,” said Eric Olson, the chairman of Newton’s Energy Commission. “There’s a lot to like about it. But I do think the city can do more about matching occupancy to energy. The hallway lights are one example of that.”

Olson said the commission members were alarmed when the building first opened and they noticed that energy consumption was about the same as it was in the old building. It was an indication that the new facility wasn’t running as efficiently as it was designed to, Olson said.

The commission initially also heard complaints that the classroom lights were on all night, too, Olson said.

The district hired a facilities manager about a year after the building opened, and the energy bills have declined significantly since then, Rooney said.

The sensors for the classroom lights are now also properly operating, and the lights are off at night, Rooney said.

“The design of the building is state of the art,’’ Rooney said, “but how many people are operating a state-of-the-art building? The training piece on facilities like this is complicated.”

Currently Newton North’s electric bill runs about $750,000 a year. But the amount spent on electricity per square foot in the new building is now about 63 percent lower than it was in the old school, despite increased requirements for ventilation fans and other electrical uses, Rooney said.

The electricity used by the hallway lights is a small portion of the high school’s annual power bill, Rooney pointed out.

Still, Olson said, “every little bit counts.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.
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