View from the Middle: Never as simple as it seems

Note: In lieu of a regular opinion column this week (too many letters to the editor), I’m posting “View from the Middle,” my new, semi-weekly news column, which will be of more interest to Citizen’s News readers than to friends or family. But hey, friends and family: read it anyway.

When the Board of Education held its public budget hearing last month, most taxpayers who turned out worried about the impact of increased class sizes, spoke out against the closing of Salem School—a decision the school board has since reversed—and even implored borough officials to increase their tax bills to support the ballooning cost of education without necessitating drastic cuts.

I was sufficiently surprised, given the political atmosphere on the national stage, that those three of four residents willingly asked for a tax increase. All the talk about Salem and class sizes was old hat at that point—though I mean to imply neither that residents’ concerns were proffered with levity, nor that those issues are without significance.

In any case, a few other specific concerns caught my ear. Among them was trepidation over the textbooks line item, which is currently funded—underfunded, some asserted— at $60,000. I hope to examine this issue in detail in coming weeks.

But Charley Marenghi, the vice president and spokesman of the Naugatuck Teacher’s League, raised another point that caught my attention. Why, he wondered, are teachers leaving their computers on at night?

“District-wide, staff members are told, ‘Do not turn off your computers’ … Now at my house, we don’t do that. At my house, we turn the computer off. Because when a computer is plugged in, let alone left on, it consumes a massive amount of electricity. And we’re doing that in every single classroom, in every single building, including in our computer labs.”

That one, at least, seemed to be a no-brainer. I try not to leave my computer running at home, either, for the same reason I turn off the lights and television when I go out.

Surely there must be an explanation, I reasoned, or change would already have been implemented, and that savings—which I, like Marenghi, assumed would be substantial—would have already been realized.

So I spoke with the school board’s Director of Information Technology Alan Merly, and did a bit of research on my own in order to approximate the potential cost-impact of shutting computers off at night, as opposed to leaving them in a power-saving standby mode.

As a disclaimer, I must submit that my research is based on speculation and, thus, yielded highly approximate results (I will explain in more detail as we go). But it turns out not only are there a few good reasons the machines are left on, but turning them off every evening would save very little money, speaking in terms relative to a $57 million district budget: somewhere in the range of $2,000 per year.

First, let’s talk about the math. As I noted, this whole process was an exercise in approximation, so take these figures and the final calculations with a grain of salt.

First of all, Merley said, there are “somewhere on the order of 1,200 to 1,400 machines probably deployed throughout the district.”

I used his low figure, 1,200, as a benchmark, assuming the actual figure is somewhere in between 1,200 and 1,400 and that some are unutilized on any given day.

To determine how much power each machine would be drawing, I took the average of seven common Dell computers powered by Pentium 4 chips that were manufactured over the last 5-10 years: the Dimension B110, Optiplex GX620, Dimension E310, Optiplex 170L, Dimension E510, Dimension XPS 600 and Dimension XPS 400.

I’m being somewhat generous here, as I can’t imagine any Naugatuck classrooms or computer labs utilize high-powered XPS-series machines, which are typically used for gaming.

When these computers are off, on average, they are consuming, or “leaking,” two watts of power. Their monitors, depending on whether they are the older vacuum-tube CRT displays or the newer LCDs, can leak a watt or two of power when powered down. Merley said both the old CRTs and newer, flat-screen LCDs are used in the district. LCDs, predictably, leak virtually no power; CRTs can leak a couple watts.

But here’s the rub: when those seven common models are in power-saving standby mode, they consume an average of—hold on to your butts—only three watts. Sleeping monitors draw anywhere between 0 and 15 watts. I used six as a benchmark, assuming there are at least as many LCDs as CRTs in the district, and that many teachers powered at least their monitors off at night. This was, admittedly, the most speculative estimate.

I came up with 2,880 as the number of hours district computers go unutilized: I multiplied 180 (the number of school days in the 2010-11 school year) by 16, which assumes they are in use—thus, out of the scope of this discussion—for eight hours out of the day.

So we now have the baseline figures for kilowatt-hour (kwh) estimates: when 1200 computers are fully powered down for those 16 hours, they’re still consuming about 6,900 kW h. When hibernating, they’re sucking down about 10,400 kwh.

The school board will pay 9.4 cents per kwh in 2010-11 for electricity, to TransCanada. Multiplying our kwh estimates by .094 yields an annual cost of approximately $650 for computers district-wide that are plugged in but powered down, and approximately $975 for computers left in standby during off-hours.

When I factored in the average power draw of the machines’ respective monitors, I came up with an overall, estimated $1,000 yearly cost for machines to remain plugged in overnight, and approximately $3,000 for them to remain in standby.

So if teachers powered off at night, they’d be saving the district somewhere in the range of $2,000 a year. If they unplugged their machines entirely, or switched off a surge protector, they’d help save about $3,000 annually. I’m not a statistician, but I’m going to suggest a 50 percent margin of error, given the speculative nature of my number-crunching. So let’s say the school system would save between $1,000 and $3,000 annually by shutting down, and between $1,500 and $4,500 by unplugging.

Would that prospective savings be little more than a drop in the bucket? Sure; $2,000 is only a quarter of a percent of an $831,100 line item (the projected cost of electricity district-wide in 2010-11) and less than four-thousandths of a percent of the overall, $56 million school budget.

I remember talking to Mayor Bob Mezzo some time ago about the money awarded to Naugatuck by the CRRA, its waste authority, for the tonnage it produces in recyclables. In 2008-09, that revenue amounted to about $7,600, which only offset the $742,000 in tipping fees, which the borough pays the authority to process its trash, by about one percent.

But, as Mezzo said at the time, “Every dollar in a tight budget is important … it’s still money coming into the borough and not going out.”

So why not instruct faculty in the school system to power down at night? $2,000 might not pay anyone’s salary, but it sure could buy quite a few Bic pens.

According to Merley, there are a few reasons teachers are instructed to leave their computers on in the off-hours (it is important to distinguish between a running machine and one in standby mode: depending on the task being performed, a running, Pentium 4-powered machine draws 100-250 watts, as opposed to the three pulled down by one in standby).

First of all, he said, it’s a simple problem of logistics.

“We can turn the computers off, but who’s actually going to do it?” he asked. “We have a bunch of very capable, wonderful teachers, but they’re not all tech-savvy. So if we say, ‘Could you power those off?’ and they’d be like, “Sure, I did it,’ but that really means they disconnected the network cable [as opposed to the power cable] out of the back … either way you go, it’s a challenge.”

There is a way for the network administrators to implement a system, known as Wake-on-LAN, which would allow them to remotely power machines on and off as needed, Merley said. But implementing that protocol would require the purchase of some expensive network hardware.

“For every benefit, for every technological leap forward, there’s usually a capitalization investment that has to happen in order to get there,” he said. “And we’re not in a position to make that leap quite yet. So we’re trying to go after some of that low-hanging fruit, where we can realize some immediate, real savings.”

Merley said the IT department has contracted with Siemens for a power savings solution called Verdiem, which cuts the power consumption of hibernating computers even further than the three-watt average I assessed earlier, by using smarter features than the basic power-management tools provided by Windows.

And some of the fundamental tasks performed by network administrators can only be carried out when in-network machines are powered on. The most commonplace task is updating software; though the Windows operating system is only updated about once per month, Merley said, updates to applications and anti-virus software are applied more frequently.

In the case of anti-virus updates, oftentimes new strains of malicious code and software will surface unexpectedly, at strange hours, and require immediate—or at least prompt— attention.

Further, IT administrators may need to perform network maintenance remotely, which, again, requires the machines to be standing by.

“Oftentimes, if there’s a teacher having a problem with, say, a SMART Board, or a program having a conflict, [a network administrator] can go in at seven or eight o’clock at night, remotely fix the issue, and when the teacher comes in the next morning, the machine has already gone back to sleep and the problem has been taken care of,” Merley said.

So the school board’s IT department would need to overcome the logistical challenge of getting teachers to power down—not to mention of updating software and fixing routine, individual problems—in order to realize a relatively insignificant savings.

The final piece of the puzzle is the impact of physically booting up a computer, both in terms of education and power consumption. Power draw spikes for a minute or two at startup, so if multiplied times 1,200 computers times 180 days, there would be a definite negative impact on savings. And Merley said some of the machines take five minutes or more to power up.

“There is a time factor involved in booting them up,” he said. “[Teachers] have 40 minutes for a class. They bring their students in, and now the first class of the day, they have to have the students power them on, and they’re sitting there waiting five to seven minutes for the machines to start up. And then if there’s a login issue, they have to troubleshoot that. It could eat quite a bit of time out of their first-period classes.”

Would the potential savings be worth the potential logistical and technical trouble to students, teachers and network administrators? I don’t know. I’m not in the business of making value judgments.

All I can say is things are rarely as simple as they seem.


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