Howard teacher lauded for student energy audit training

Susan Lower of River Hill trains students to help homeowners save power

April 07, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

River Hill High School science teacher Susan Lower trains her students to go to neighborhood homes in search of what she calls "vampires" — electrical devices that draw energy from homes even when they're turned off.

Lower developed a program that trains students to audit homes for its environmental efficiency, helping homeowners explore their energy use habits to reduce consumption and energy bills. She said that since her program began in 2007, more than 150 students have participated and about 400 homes have been audited.

"They're mainly asking people to change behaviors," said Lower, who has also created countywide discussion groups on such topics as climate change and personal carbon footprints. She said that she got the idea for creating an auditing program after watching the 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth," which explored former Vice President Al Gore's efforts to educate citizens about global warming.

For her efforts, she recently won grand prize in the inaugural Marcal Small Steps for Big Change Awards. Lower is among five individuals nationwide to receive awards and took home the $5,000 grand prize

"Everyone knows about switching off light bulbs," she said, "but if you don't turn the lights off when you're not using them, then you're not really getting the best out of your energy. With a low-flow shower head, [you're] using less hot water, and therefore have to heat up less hot water. But if you stay in the shower for an hour what did you do?"

Lower's students have become virtual energy-efficient experts, asking each homeowner for the amount of kilowatt hours on their electric bills and providing recommendations that could reduce those hours.

"One of the biggest users of electricity is going to be your [cable] boxes," said 11th-grader Morgan Hrab. Those generally use about a standard light bulb use of electricity even when they're off. For TVs, electricity use depends on age and the type of circuitry and lighting used. Older, backlight panel televisions are less efficient than more recent models, Hrab said.

"When you leave new TVs plugged in and on standby, what you perceived to be as off, they use less than a watt or sometimes less than a tenth of a watt so it's really not a big deal," he said

Eleventh-grader Tim Krotaov said the students tell families to program their thermostats rather than set them at one temperature throughout the day. "At my house, we have it in the 50s in the winter when we're not there, because we have animals and they have fur so they don't really get that cold," Krotaov said.

"In the summertime, a good number is about 72 degrees or a little bit higher," Hrab added.

Heather Jefferson of Clarksville said a student audited her townhouse a few years ago, suggesting that she and her family adopt such habits as using one rinse cycle on laundry, closing the blinds on both hot and cold days and adjusting the water heater temperature.

"A big thing they told us was turning off and unplugging the appliances to take care of — what did they call them? — vampires," said Jefferson. "We implemented those things and saw our energy use go down and our bill go down."

Lower said that she stresses to high school students the importance of understanding energy efficiency because "they will be paying the bills shortly."

Still, she says, "Teaching environmental science can be very depressing for children. There are a lot of things that happen in the environment that aren't good. What we don't want kids to do is feel helpless and shut down and say, 'You know what? There's nothing I can do about it anyway.'"

"We show them a slide of a place where they asked citizens to look at their TV sets at 9 [o'clock] and turn off all the lights that are not being used and unplug them," Lower said, "and what they found is that they saved the equivalent of two medium-sized, coal-burning power plants," Lower said. "It does matter what individuals do. They have the power to make a difference on this planet."

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