Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Caring for God’s earth is part of the daily curriculum for students at Roanoke Catholic School. For an illustration of what they are being taught, they need only look at the lights overhead. 

As part of its ongoing plan to cut energy use, Roanoke Catholic installed energy-efficient LED lights in many of its classrooms and common areas in October, replacing fluorescent tube lighting that had been there for years. 

The cost savings has been significant already, said principal and head of school Patrick Patterson. 

“But it’s more than that: reducing our carbon footprint is part of our mission as Catholics, and we teach in our curriculum how to be good stewards of resources,” he said.

Fluorescent tubes use more energy than LED lights, he explained, and they contain mercury, which can be a health risk while the lights are working and afterward, as they are difficult to dispose of safely. 

The lighting project was made affordable due to the generosity of an anonymous alumnus who donated the 803 LED lights and fixtures. That gift was valued at $65,000.  

To install the lights, the school hired U.S. Energy Management of Keswick, which has done similar work throughout the diocese, after receiving its free audit and competitive bid of approximately $16,000 for the 72,000-square-foot multipurpose building. That area includes classrooms and hallways, as well as the chapel, library, cafeteria and learning center. In some places, the bulbs fit into existing fixtures, which saved more money. The work was completed over three weekends in October. 

“LED is the greatest technological advancement in lighting since the 1930s,” said owner and president Bill Hunt, because it costs 90 percent less to run than fluorescent, the bulbs last longer and there’s no hazardous material — all of which cut waste and the environmental toll. 

“It’s good for business, for building owners and for the people in the building,” added Hunt, whose own children attended Catholic schools. He noted the lights often pay for themselves within a year.

A $7,500 rebate from the Take Charge program offered by Appalachian Power (AEP) subsequently reduced the installation cost by half. It was facilitated by Todd Ewald, a local outreach specialist who works as a contractor with the utility company. 

Ewald noted that lighting upgrades are usually the easiest, fastest and least expensive projects, with immediate benefits. 

The new light at Roanoke Catholic is brighter and more like daylight, he said. It also doesn’t flicker like fluorescent light, which can cause headaches. He knows of studies that show LED lights even help improve people’s moods. 

“I think we’ve all become more conscious about our environmental footprint,” Ewald said. “In the school setting we’re giving this message to those students, who will make the decisions about our earth after we’re all gone.”

The lights are one part of a wider plan that began several years ago. 

In 2011, in response to the school’s concern over rising energy costs, diocesan real estate director Deacon Paul Mahefky visited to make suggestions for energy conservation. 

“Some of those old buildings, with 12-foot ceilings, were built in the 1930s,” he said. “It looked like a fortress, and there was a lot to do.”

Since then, one project at a time, the school has replaced all the windows, exterior doors and exterior insulation. It has also removed many window air conditioners and added, among other things, two heat pumps to heat and cool the upper school gym; a giant, coliseum-style ceiling fan with 15-foot blades in the lower school gym for cooling without air conditioning; and ductless variable refrigerant flow (VRF) units in many classrooms, specifically designed for the school by Mitsubishi for efficient temperature control. 

The school has not needed any loans, Patterson noted, as all of the projects have been funded through donations and the school’s budget.

Deacon Mahefky said that it’s “simple common sense” to reduce the school’s energy footprint. “Besides, the money saved can be used for scholarships, and it demonstrates that the school is actively trying to reduce its costs to keep tuition down and to run the school more efficiently,” he said. “As stewards of the environment, the church has an obligation to do this.”

Patterson said the school is seeing significant savings on its electric bills. Before the upgrades, the energy cost was increasing by about 12 percent per year. By the end of last year, the increase was only about 1.5 percent, he said.

“So even though AEP continues to raise its rates, we are reducing the amount of revenue we put into our energy use,” Patterson explained. “It’s just a drop of what we would be paying without these changes.”

The next two projects are to replace the lights and window air-conditioning units in the high school.

“This is our responsibility as faith-based people,” Patterson said, and the school is sending that message to students, whose ages range from 3 to 19. “You want those kids to learn that part of being a good Catholic Christian is caring for our environment.”