GORHAM — It’s January – typically one of the coldest months of the year, and it’s lived up to its reputation. During these bone-chilling days when heating systems struggle to warm our living spaces to a relatively comfortable temperature, I shudder to think how many older, oil-burning systems will break down suddenly and with disastrous implications.

Schools play a critical part in keeping children educated, safe and warm, and it impresses me how most schools are able to do this. But I also know that schools struggle with shrinking financial resources and have to do so much more with less. In my 25-year career as a mechanical engineer, what I find particularly disheartening is how many schools I’ve seen throughout the state that literally burn money using outdated and inefficient boilers.

And that doesn’t take into account the other avoidable budget-buster: the cost of inefficient and poorly controlled lighting and other systems. The consequences are real and extremely costly.

According to both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, energy costs are second only to payroll and other personnel costs as the top K-12 school expenditure, totaling roughly $8 billion a year in 2006. An estimated $2 billion could have been saved nationally through energy efficiency. That translates roughly to buying nearly 40 million new textbooks.

Through energy-efficiency measures, both thermal and electric, many K-12 schools have been able to reduce energy costs by as much as 30 percent in existing facilities. And that doesn’t account for the option to heat with natural gas. For example, using today’s prices, the cost of heating with a high-efficiency natural gas boiler is 25 percent lower than heating with an oil boiler.

But what’s just as exasperating is that some schools that have done the right thing by investing in new and energy-efficient systems often realize only a fraction of their potential savings. There are a number of reasons for this, including human error (such as improper installation); changes in building operations staff, and interference by competing equipment or systems (i.e., installation of photocopiers that generate significant heat too close to thermostats, or air handling systems that were not factored into a building’s original mechanical systems installation).

To fix this, some buildings are in need of what’s called retro-commissioning – a readjustment of a building’s energy systems so they can operate optimally given the building’s use, occupancy and multiple systems functioning at any given time.

Performed by an energy-efficiency professional, retro-commissioning can save a typical 100,000-square-foot school building between $10,000 and $16,000 annually, according to the EPA. Properly training facilities managers and staff to use that equipment, and installing campus-wide efficiency plans, can reduce energy costs by up to 25 percent by some estimates.

Also of importance are a building’s heating controls. According to a 2013 report by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, advanced building controls can slash 18 percent off the overall annual energy bill of an average large office building, reports the industry trade publication Building Design and Construction. And there’s no loss of comfort. Though schools have shorter operation schedules and different circumstances than office buildings, the results are still impressive.

Modern controls are able to sense the number of people in an area, and modify air movement accordingly. This eliminates running an HVAC system at full tilt, for example, during early morning hours when just a handful of teachers arrive early to prepare their classrooms, or kitchen staff prep for lunch. It takes considerable energy to reheat outside air for ventilation before it circulates around a school.

As the Pacific Northwest Lab report puts it: “Why have a fan pushing around air for ventilation for 100 people if there’s only one individual in the room? It’s like airing out your house completely because there’s one small whiff of bacon still in the kitchen.”

Not only does energy efficiency save a school district money, but evidence shows it even improves attendance rates. According to a study commissioned by the state of Washington in 2005, energy-efficiency measures in school designs were shown to improve indoor air quality and showed potential to reduce absenteeism rates by as much as 15 percent. That’s particularly relevant when factoring in that asthma is one of the leading causes of absenteeism among schoolchildren.

Sure, gasoline and oil are at prices lower than we’ve seen in years. But don’t be fooled. This isn’t likely to last. With municipalities strapped for funds, and with less of the General Fund going toward education, school districts will have to make energy efficiency a top priority.