By Ed Brennen
Moving from room to room at the Lowell Transitional Living Center, senior mechanical engineering majors Orhan Kallogjeri and Tu Anh Huynh take note of all the money-saving improvements that need to be made as they assist with a comprehensive energy audit.
In the kitchen, several old donated refrigerators are not Energy Star-certified. Nor are the washing machines, water heaters and furnace down in the basement. Throughout the five-story LTLC building, where many of the city’s homeless and low-income residents come for shelter, food and services, the students find poorly insulated pipes and walls, drafty windows and inefficient lighting.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Kallogjeri says as he and Huynh shadow a professional energy assessor from Action Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Gloucester.
The students were there as “Lowell Energy Ambassadors,” a directed-study project led this year by Michele Putko, a senior lecturer in the Francis College of Engineering.
“We’re trying to help connect the dots between what the students know about engineering and energy efficiency and what’s actually happening in the market,” says Putko, who created the project with an $8,000 mini-grant she received last spring from the new Sustainability Encouragement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund.
Five undergraduate students enrolled in the two-credit directed study last fall, meeting with Putko once a week and serving meals at the LTLC, the largest homeless shelter and support organization north of Boston, to become familiar with its mission and the people it helps. The students then helped LTLC officials apply for the Low-Income Multi-Family (LIMF) Energy Retrofit program, which provides state funding to improve energy efficiency in residential buildings across the commonwealth.
Considering that the LTLC has 53 living units with their own electric meters, the application was no easy task.
“We learned that the application process is very time-consuming,” says Huynh, who enrolled in the directed study to learn more about energy-efficiency programs and reducing carbon emissions.
“I’m very interested in sustainability and finding ways to preserve the planet for future generations. I wanted to get a better idea about how making subtle changes to power consumption can help, especially with these low-income programs that assist people.”
Once the LIMF application was approved earlier this year, the students helped Action Inc. with the assessment in mid-February. Next, a statement of work will be created, and then the energy efficiency improvements, such as insulating, weather proofing and installing new appliances, will begin.
While the improvements will help the LTLC most on its heating bills next winter, Putko says students will be able to compare any savings this spring with historical data. They also will be able to calculate greenhouse gas reductions, which Putko says the university will be able to claim in its next Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) submission.
“It’s going to make a big difference for the LTLC,” says Putko, who notes that the shelter’s electric bill topped $100,000 over the past two years combined. “There’s a lot of room for efficiency, and they can use those savings in a different capacity.”
Jayde Campbell, executive director of the LTLC, agrees.
“This improves our ability to serve the folks that are most in need in our community,” he says. “It gives us ways to better afford our utility costs, which are extensive, and also to do our part to help the environment.”
Campbell says the LTLC’s facilities coordinator, Richard Boucher, has developed a strong working relationship with UMass Lowell students, which has paved the way for projects like the energy retrofit.
In a separate project, a group of graduate students in Asst. Prof. Juan Pablo Trelles’ Energy Engineering Workshop conducted an assessment last semester to see if the LTLC’s roof could support solar panels (it can). Putko’s Lowell Energy Ambassadors are now soliciting quotes from solar vendors and assisting LTLC leaders with the next steps of the project.
“We don’t want these to just be academic exercises,” Campbell says. “We want to make them meaningful in the world, where we’re able to run with them.”
Putko may spend the remaining S.E.E.D. grant money to pay for the students to attend energy-related conferences or to purchase a thermal imaging camera used in energy assessments.
“It’s great that we have the support of the Office of Sustainability,” says Putko, who also leads the Energy Literacy Project, which involves 150 sophomore-level thermodynamics students talking to people in their communities each semester about the benefits of switching to 100-percent renewable energy through their electric provider. “Sometimes little things like this can really inspire a student.”
Of the project’s five original students, Kallogjeri and Huynh are the only two who were able to continue with the one-credit directed study this spring.
Kallogjeri, a native of Albania, and Huynh, whose family is from Vietnam, both started college at UMass Boston, but they didn’t know each other until they transferred to UML in 2016 to pursue their mechanical engineering degrees.
Kallogjeri worked as an intern for a solar company last summer and has been focused on going into the renewable energy field. He says the directed study has broadened his perspective on the cost and sustainability benefits of efficient lighting, heating and appliances.
“It’s given me a new understanding of how you can make a building more efficient besides with just wind and solar,” he says. “It’s been a good hands-on experience to roll up your sleeves and understand how it works.”