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  • Lucy Meola

How to Stay Comfy and Fight Climate Change from Your Dorm

A heater in Bundy Residence Hall. | Anne Petrova '27 for Monitor

The first piece of advice my friends gave me when I revealed that I would be living in Dunham sophomore year was to purchase a fan and keep my window open, not for the summer heat, but for the intensity of the radiators all winter. I initially thought they were exaggerating, but now that stepping into my room feels like entering a tropical rainforest, I understand why these measures are a necessity.

The intense Dunham heat is part of the much larger story of the College’s carbon footprint. Hamilton’s ambitious goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030 hinges on the College’s ability to dramatically decrease the climate impact of heating buildings by converting to geothermal heating. Heating is also one of the few pieces of Hamilton’s institutional carbon footprint that student decisions can directly impact, and spurring a culture shift around student heating decisions will be crucial to reducing building emissions.

Heating buildings is one of the most energetically costly human behaviors, particularly in cold environments like Clinton’s during the winter months. Buildings were responsible for nearly a third of New York State emissions in 2019, and at Hamilton their impact is even greater. Burning natural gas to heat buildings accounted for a whopping 61% of Hamilton’s carbon emissions for the 2021 financial year at over 6,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. This number doesn’t account for the additional emissions of other heating sources on campus.

Replacing current heating systems with electrically-powered and highly efficient geothermal heat pumps is the first item on Hamilton’s spring 2023 Climate Action Plan, but this transition will not happen overnight. In the years leading up to full implementation of this plan, Hamilton students can still work to lower the carbon footprint of the heating systems already in place in their residence halls.

Of the 2.1 million square feet of buildings on campus, about a third are residence halls, meaning that a large slice of Hamilton’s energy usage is theoretically under the influence of student decisions. If residence halls counted for exactly a third of the natural gas combustion on campus, they would have produced just over 2,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2023.

Bill Huggins, Director of Building Systems Management in Facilities Management, broke down the heating systems and energy sourcing for all twenty-nine permanent residence halls. Huggins, a twenty-plus-year employee who now oversees the temperature regulation of all buildings on campus, shared that the only residence hall currently outfitted with a geothermal heat pump is Skenandoa, which received a LEED Silver certification after its 2004 renovation. This type of pump exchanges heat with the soil a few feet below the ground surface, which remains at a relatively stable temperature throughout the year. In winter, geothermal heat pumps can draw heat from the earth to warm buildings, and they can also distribute a building’s heat into the ground to cool indoor temperatures in the summer. These systems are powered with electricity and are generally much more efficient than standard electric heating and natural gas-powered heating systems, contributing to significant emissions reductions. In Skenandoa, for example, Huggins explained that the geothermal system uses 50% less energy per square foot than natural gas-powered heating systems in other dorms.

On the other end of the spectrum, Huggins explained that Rogers Estate is heated by burning fuel oil, a category of fossil fuel products with varying degrees of efficiency and environmental impact depending on composition. In general, burning fuel oil produces higher emissions than burning natural gas, including a significant amount of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, and which can also have detrimental health effects.

Huggins also explained that Milbank, Babbitt, and Bundy are the only residence halls that use electric-powered systems with baseboard heaters, a legacy of heating trends from the 1960s and 70s when they were constructed. He revealed that, frustratingly, the entire Kirkland campus used electric heating, but Hamilton converted Root, Keehn, Major, Minor, and McIntosh to gas heating in the 1990s when gas became the more economical option. While not as efficient as geothermal, electric heating has a lower carbon footprint than natural gas, especially considering the increase in zero-carbon energy on the New York electrical grid.

All 23 remaining residence halls are heated by burning natural gas. Huggins assured me that most of the gas-powered boilers on campus are high-efficiency models, but the fact that they burn fossil fuels remains, as evidenced by the contribution of natural gas to Hamilton’s carbon footprint as a whole. I asked Huggins whether he believed student decisions in these dorms affect their energy efficiency and consequently the school’s carbon footprint, and he agreed enthusiastically, saying that the impact of student decisions is “huge.”

One way students can affect energy usage for heating is simply through the temperatures they choose to set their rooms to. Many residence halls, including all of those on the south side of campus, Bundy, and the more recently renovated Light Side dorms include thermostats in each room, giving students the power to manipulate their room temperatures. An easy way to reduce emissions is to lower room temperature to between 68 and 70°F, particularly when asleep or out of the room, as most Hamilton students are for the majority of the day. Yet student decisions are important to heat usage even in dorms without personal thermostats. Huggins noted that the common tactic of combating overheated rooms by opening windows lets heat flood out of residential buildings, and heating systems go into overdrive to maintain the target temperature. Even though Facilities Management tries to set the residence hall baseline temperature at 69℉, the stress that open windows put on the heating system can lead to much higher temperatures.

Dunham is a prime example of this counterintuitive effect. Although it houses 250 students, Dunham has only 14 thermostats interspersed in rooms throughout the building. Each thermostat sends temperature data to a buildings management system, which averages the measurements to determine how much heat to add to the system. As a result, the decisions of the students in those 14 rooms have a disproportionate impact on the climate of the entire building. Leaving windows open in those rooms can trick the heating system into thinking the entire building is colder than it actually is, activating radiators throughout the building even if the temperature in most rooms is well above 69°F.

Huggins admits that this system is far from ideal in terms of both energy efficiency and comfort and says part of the College’s buildings plan includes installing personal thermostats in every dorm room. Until that time, however, keeping windows in those key rooms closed is the best way to ensure that Dunham remains at a habitable temperature and to avoid wasting energy.

Although Dunham is an extreme example, the principle remains the same for all buildings on campus. Heating thousands of square feet of space is energy-intensive enough without having to account for the constant loss of heat through open windows. Even in dorms like Skenandoa, Milbank, Babbitt, and Bundy that do not use fossil fuel-powered boilers, the heating systems are only as clean as the electricity that powers them. Hamilton sources electricity from New York’s state grid, where 46% of electricity generation comes from burning natural gas. Although this percentage is lower in New York than most other states, it still creates significant carbon emissions. Whereas New York State does not plan to reach a zero-carbon electric grid until 2040, Hamilton’s goal is net-zero by 2030, necessitating increased efficiency to limit the need for carbon offsets.

Some might point out that the type of change I am advocating falls into the category of individual action, which deflects responsibility away from the large corporations and institutions that create the bulk of emissions. In most cases, I would agree. However, in this particular instance, we have an opportunity to change an aspect of campus culture that truly makes a difference in the school’s carbon footprint.

For many Hamilton students, though, keeping the windows open seems like the only way to keep their rooms bearable. Becca McAuliffe ’26 explained that she opens her window because “my room gets hot, and I learned in my Mental Health and Wellness class that if it’s over a certain temperature then your sleep isn’t going to be as good as it would be at a typical 70°F.” An overheated room can also impact the ability to focus and overall comfort, which students should not have to sacrifice in service of the institution’s climate goals.

Huggins revealed a shockingly simple solution. He explained that student comfort is one of Facilities Management’s top priorities. In buildings with incomplete thermostat coverage, however, the only way Facilities can learn about uncomfortable conditions is through student contact. Huggins encouraged any student whose room is either too hot or too cold to call Facilities Management directly and emphasized their willingness to adjust the temperature, although, he joked, they were not going to set anyone’s room to 77°F.

Facilities Management’s eagerness to create a comfortable environment for all residents clashed with the tough-it-out mentality I have encountered from most Hamilton students. The problem, then, is one of communication and campus culture rather than apathy about campus emissions. Normalizing calling FM to adjust uncomfortable temperature conditions rather than cracking a window open is a simple shift that would increase the quality of life for students while simultaneously helping lower Hamilton’s largest source of carbon emissions. Until the College finishes updating all residence halls with geothermal heat pumps, students can play a major role in reducing our carbon emissions.

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