School Building Tune-Ups

Special Team Tests and Tunes Up School Buildings for Energy

Heating and ventilation (HVAC) systems in SPS facilities have always been a high priority and remain the current focus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SPS also regularly tests all building systems to make sure they function properly.

Building Tune Up Team

SPS hired four building tune-up specialists, called retro-commissioning agents, in 2016. The positions were funded by the Buildings, Technology, and Academics/Athletics IV Capital Levy (BTA IV). Then, a Building Tune Up Team was formed that includes those retro-commissioning agents. Building Tune Ups help ensure schools are healthy and comfortable places to learn.

Commissioning and retro-commissioning: In new or modernized schools, commissioning means making sure that all the building systems function the way they are supposed to work. Retro-commissioning or recommissioning refers to going through existing schools with the same type of attention paid to new school systems.

HVAC is just one of the systems tested and recommissioned. Building Tune Ups also include:

  • Plumbing,
  • Water heating,
  • Water usage,
  • Electrical systems,
  • Roofs,
  • Windows and doors.

Deep Review of Systems

SPS’s Tune Up team touches every piece of energy-consuming equipment in the entire school including portable classrooms. They also work closely with the SPS resource conservation management team to evaluate water and power usage records.

“New buildings and systems are very efficient. But that efficiency slowly declines with use, so we revisit the systems to keep them running efficiently,” said Mike Workman, a retro-commissioning agent. “It’s like tuning up your car. You can’t get back to the 100% of a new building, but we get them running at the highest efficiency possible based on the natural aging of the building systems.”

About 85% of classroom HVAC systems can be controlled and tested from the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence. Other HVAC systems and other systems require on-site testing. Required time varies based on building size, type of control system, and how many issues have been discovered/resolved. Some of smaller schools may take 2-3 weeks and larger secondary schools up to as long as 2-3 months.

Commons fixes include:

  • Making sure HVAC systems and lighting schedules match school hours.
  • Adjusting HVAC systems to meet identified performance.
  • Fixing lighting occupancy sensors.
  • Identifying opportunities to upgrade to high-efficiency LED lighting.
  • Programming hot water controls to save energy and money.

Problems discovered are either fixed on the spot or submitted for repair through the district’s work order system.

City Requirement Added

The City of Seattle has now instituted a Building Tune-Up requirement. Every non-residential building in Seattle that is more than 50,000 square feet must be tested every four years. There are 80 SPS buildings that are 50,000 square feet or larger. Smaller buildings are also being recommissioned but are not required by City of Seattle code.

Financial Benefits

A city accelerator program included 22 elementary school buildings. This program was designed to get some buildings most in need of upgrades done quickly. The selected schools were targeted due to above average energy usage. In addition to improving energy efficiency, participation in the accelerator program resulted in nearly $186,000 in rebates from Seattle City Light.

Ongoing Cycle

In addition to the 22 accelerator schools, every SPS building of more than 200,000 square feet was recommissioned in 2017. The second year included buildings that are 100,000 to 199,000 square feet followed by those that are 70,000 to 99,000 square feet. By Oct. 1, 2021, every building that is more than 50,000 square feet will have been tested and tuned. Then the four-year cycle repeats.

“Our goal is to find and fix problems before they become bigger problems,” said Kin Lam, a retro-commissioning agent.


The SPS retro-commissioning agents and tune up program are funded by the Buildings, Technology, and Academics/Athletics IV Capital Levy (BTA IV), which was approved by Seattle voters in 2016. Planning for the BTA V replacement levy is under way and is expected to include continued funding for this work.

(Sept. 15, 2021, Seattle Public Schools)