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Closing Doors

Illinois institutions try to keep the heat in

Illinois Times

January 12, 1984

Learning new habits is hard. Teaching new habits is a lot harder, especially when the student in a public institution. Figuring out who benefits and who pays can lead to muddle, especially when the subject is energy efficiency


Interesting, isn't it, how night-time lows of twenty below zero concentrate the mind? A year ago energy didn't matter. But at the December meeting of the board of Springfield's School District 186 the issue arose again, in the form of a question from a newly-elected board member: "Mr. Maslauski" (read the official minutes) "asked if they had an energy policy that says when somebody can open a window?"


It was with the relief which only a new taxpayer can feel that 1 went on to read that Springfield public schools do indeed have such a policy. Heating and cooling not just schools, but hospitals and offices account for large chunks of the budgets of public agencies. One is used to watching one's tax money flying out the window in a figurative sense, but it is still reassuring to learn that steps have been taken to stop its literal escape.


A few examples:


 Between 1976 and 1981, energy costs per square foot on Illinois college campuses rose 107 percent. Conservation steps had cut energy consumption per foot by nearly 16 percent over the same period, but obviously not enough to keep the actual dollar cost from rising. (Both costs and consumption have continued their divergent trends since 1981, but at slower paces.) Total energy costs at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus in 1983 were nearly $17 million, for example, which is almost enough to buy a football team.


In 1981, utility bills made up nearly a quarter of the annual budget of Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center. (Perhaps this is why the board of the PCCC adopted the nickname "The Center"; it costs so much less to put it in lights on the marquee board.)


Springfield's Lincoln Land Community College, after years of trimming, still had to budget nearly $630,000 for energy in 1982. Allowing a generous average salary of $30,000, that's enough money to pay twenty-one instructors. Our education dollars, it would seem, buy more heat than light.


That these bills are higher than they need to be goes without saying. Inefficient building design exacts its costs, as does poor management. The pre-OPEC notion that energy costs are essentially fixed, built into a building like the plumbing, survives everywhere. The board of the PCCC, for example, has often justified its levy of a tax on local property as the only way it can make up the deficit caused by its failure to collect an agreed-upon $100,000 in annual lease fees from the much-delayed convention center hotel next door. The possibility that most or all of that $100,000 could be recovered through reduced energy costs seems not to have occurred to them.


Public agencies vary in the speed with which they have wakened to the implications of high energy costs in an era of dwindling public resources. The higher ed establishment, for instance, reacted rather quickly; by the end of the '70s, Southern Illinois University had saved $4 million at its Carbondale campus alone. Yet it wasn't until 1981 that the state put storm windows on the governor's mansion in Springfield.


Of all public bodies, local school systems probably wasted the most energy. As usual, the culprit was inefficient design—high ceilings, lots of glass on shady sides of buildings—aggravated by poor management. Janitors typically ran heating systems according to the same philosophy which led their principals to cope with the problem of failing students by promoting them; if a room was too hot, they'd open a window. Organizers report that when the Institutions Task Force of the Springfield Energy Project began their deliberations in 1981, District 186's representatives showed the least sophisticated awareness of energy issues on the panel.


No more. Since then, District 186 has adopted a broad program of energy-saving improvements. In his published list of nine objectives for 1983–84, superintendent Donald Miedema listed energy improvements and conservation as his second and third priority. One can understand why, given the system's precarious finances; in the first year electricity use dropped 15 percent and gas use by 22.5 percent. Some of the latter savings was due to last year's mild winter. But at a recent board meeting, Miedema reported that on a recent December day, when temperatures had dropped to record lows, only two of the four boilers at Springfield High School (a sixty-seven-year-old building, recently refitted) were needed. Last winter, before the energy improvements had been completed, all four boilers had to be run "full blast" on much milder days.


The economics of energy conservation hinge on the willingness to spend some money today to save more money tomorrow. But spending for the future is not likely to win many friends when so many demands of the present are left unmet: An anonymous letter circulated by unhappy teachers during the recent school strike in Springfield complained in part, "The district sunk $3 million in Springfield High School . . . to avoid having funds to pay teachers." 


It is suggestive that those public institutions, such as universities and hospitals, which learned the arithmetic of the new energy era are those which are the most insulated from public opinion. Pay-back periods for most energy improvements seldom extend further than five years or so, but the standard term of elective office is four years. What is a man profited, elected officials ask, if he shall gain BTUs to burn, and lose his seat?


One solution is to get somebody else to pay for it. Illinois' Department of Energy and Natural Resources, for instance, runs several conservation programs aimed at institutions, offering computerized energy use profiles, energy audits, technical assistance—and cash. The most recent award of federal matching grant funds for the Institutional Conservation Program amounted to $12.4 million, the largest in five years; most of that will go to eighty-three qualifying schools and hospitals for the purchase and installation of energy equipment. (Several of these are in central Illinois.)


The economic rationale for such grant programs is reasonably straightforward. Conservation slows the consumption of irreplaceable fossil fuels, creates jobs for fabricators and installers of everything from duct tape to microchip thermostat control systems, and defers costly utility expansions and their attendant pollution—not as much as a jet fighter, in other words, but still not a bad way to spend public money.


Alas, access to capital is not the only impediment to conservation. Human nature remains intractable. The utilities manager of SIU's Carbondale campus has complained that staffers there brought in their own electric space heaters, tinkered with thermostats, even changed light bulbs in contravention of his conservation program.


Last year the General Services Administration installed vestibules at the entrances to the federal building in downtown Springfield. The purpose of the vestibule is to prevent the exchange of cold outside air with heated indoor air every time any one of the many hundreds of people who visit that building goes in or out. During the morning rush, however, the inside door of the new vestibule is typically pushed back far enough to lock itself in an open position—where it stays, perfectly frustrating the purpose for which it was installed.


That door makes a useful case study in the dilemmas of bending private behavior to public ends. Several questions suggest themselves. Are people so lazy that the marginal exertion of opening a second door is unacceptable? Are they so stupid that they simply don't realize the purpose of that second door? Encountering the second door, do they shrink from closing it themselves on the assumption that it had been deliberately left ajar by the building's managers? Do they fear that by closing it they would be guilty of presumption, perhaps even a federal crime?


Or do they see the open door, realize its purpose and the costs of leaving it open, and choose not to close it simply because they somehow believe that it is not their money that is being wasted? The link between cost and benefit is vague to the taxpayers shuttling in and out of that door every morning. At home, changes in energy behavior result in rewards which are both immediate and personal. Rewards which are long-range and accrue to the public just won't close many doors. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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