URI behavior change campaign yields energy savings in residence halls

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Next phase to include faculty, staff

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 8, 2009 – The results from the first semester of a behavior change campaign in the residence halls at the University of Rhode Island has yielded impressive results that demonstrate the great potential for behavior-based energy savings. It is one of the first campaigns of its kind at a university in the United States.

The campaign targeted the most common and most wasteful behaviors found in a survey of URI students who live on campus — leaving computers on when not in use, leaving the heat and/or air conditioning on when leaving a room, and taking excessively long showers.

Only 18 percent of students surveyed before the campaign indicated that they turn off their computers when not in use – most leave them on for an average of 16 hours per day — but that rate nearly doubled to 35 percent four months later. The rate of students who turn off their heat and air conditioning when leaving the room increased from 45 percent to 65 percent, while the rate of those who hibernate their computer after use went from 62 percent to 75 percent.

“The results were almost double of what we expected, based on pilot projects at other universities,” said Scott Finlinson, the coordinator of the project for NORESCO, the energy services company hired by the University. “In the second year of the project, I would expect URI will start at a higher rate for each of these behaviors and end up even better.”

The most unexpected result came from the data on shower usage. The initial survey indicated that showers taken by URI students lasted an average of 13 minutes each, which is comparable to findings at other universities. After the first semester of the campaign, shower length remained virtually unchanged, but students reduced the number of showers they take each week from 8 to 6.8.

“Shower length is the most difficult behavior to change; it seems to be ingrained in people as a right,” explained Finlinson. “It might have to do with the fact that few people understand the costs of water and sewer and water heating. And while men tend to be willing to reduce the length of their showers, women say that they have too much to do in the shower to cut back on the time spent there.

“I think that the students heard our message about shower length and they were willing to help, but they chose to reduce shower frequency instead of shower time. Either way, they still cut back on the time they spend in the shower by 13 minutes a week,” he added.

In addition to the campaign’s success at reducing the three targeted wasteful behaviors, four out of five other wasteful behaviors also saw improvements even though they weren’t mentioned in the campaign. These included brushing teeth with the water off, recycling, and turning off the television when it is not in use.

The behavior change campaign is part of an $18 million energy efficiency and conservation initiative launched in 2007 that will save more than 7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 42 million pounds of steam per year. The cost of the three-year project with NORESCO will be paid over 12 years from the savings on the University’s utility bills.

“Changing wasteful behaviors is just one more energy conservation strategy we can employ on campus, like installing more efficient lighting or weatherizing our buildings,” said Jerry Sidio, URI director of Facilities Services. “While it may be easier to make physical changes to our facilities to save energy, if we want to achieve our energy savings objectives we must also change behaviors.”

The residence hall campaign will continue next fall when a new class of students arrives on campus.

In the meantime, the URI President’s Council on Sustainability is making preliminary plans to work with NORESCO to extend the behavior change campaign to faculty and staff. In the coming months, the most wasteful behaviors will be identified in each academic and administrative building on campus, and “Green Champions” will be recruited in each building to promote and encourage appropriate behaviors. A Web site will also be developed to support this effort.