Managing Water and Electricity Consumption in University Residence Halls: a Study on Promoting Voluntary Resource Conservation by College Students

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Virginia Tech


With the world's population growing at a rate faster than the rate at which natural resources are being replenished, the challenge for governments and the world's citizens is how to conserve resources in order to provide a sustainable level of natural resources for the future. Conserving natural resources includes educating the citizens of the world on the connection between natural resource depletion and their levels of consumption of resources, such as energy and water.

To help alleviate the increasing burden the world's growing population is placing on natural resources, sustainability should be a part of college students' education in their field of study and in preparing them to become good citizens. This education should take place in the classroom and other activities, including athletics, community organizations, and in their residence life. Teaching students living in on-campus residence halls conservation activities provides information that students can use in their private lives when setting up their own households. On-campus residence halls also provide an opportunity to evaluate any gender differences related to conservation activities since the demographics of the residence halls vary from all-female, to co-ed, to all-male students.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) was the location for a study on promoting environmentally-relevant behavior (ERB) among students residing in on-campus residence halls. The objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between the use of educational strategies and natural resource consumption by promoting ERB among students living in the residence halls during the spring and fall semesters of the 2009 calendar year.

Using the literature on promoting ERB, five different strategies were designed for promoting water and electricity conservation. Each strategy involved different stimuli to promote student participation in ERB. The information provided the students included reasons why ERB was important and specific actions to take to conserve resources. In three of the strategies, students were provided the results of their conservation efforts monthly during the study period.

The Virginia Tech Office of Residence Life provided detailed information for the 49 on-campus residence halls, including buildings' characteristics such as heating and cooling methods, age, construction, renovation history, square footage, if the buildings contained offices or classrooms, and student population figures. Variability among the buildings was eliminated by comparing these differences, and then a random numbers table was used to assign each of the buildings to one of the five different groups. The strategy for each group was applied to four residence halls -- two dormitories and two Greek Houses, for a total of twenty buildings. In each strategy more stimuli were applied in an effort to produce higher consumption reductions.

The Virginia Tech Office of Facilities provided four-years historical electricity and seven-years historical water usage, and provided monthly usage for each building during the study period. Electricity consumption reduction was promoted in all twenty halls but water consumption reduction was promoted only in the dormitories, as the University was unable to track water consumption for any one individual Greek House. The historical data showed that water usage per student was higher in most of the female-occupied dormitories, but no statistical difference was seen with regards to historical electricity usage and gender. Percent change in per student usage — kilowatt hours for electricity and gallons for water — was the calculation used to determine change in ERB.

The results of this research showed a general relationship between educational strategies and natural resource consumption reduction over both study periods. However, except for the Greek-House Spring semester results, no statistical significant difference was found between any of the different study groups. Electricity reductions were achieved in seventeen of twenty residence halls during the first semester and in all but one residence hall during the second semester. Water reductions were achieved in five of ten dormitories during the first semester and in six of nine dormitories in the second semester. However, the use of more strategies did not lead to a higher percentage of reductions.

During the first semester, a statistically significant difference was found in water usage and gender and the difference did not support a female predisposition for ERB. Decreases were achieved in excess of 10% in the male-occupied dormitories, but only a minimal reduction or increases were achieved in any of the dormitories that included female residents. After the first month of the second semester, similar results were seen relative to gender, so additional posters and prompts were placed in the female-occupied dormitories. As a result, water reductions were achieved in six dormitories with only small increases in the other three, and the semester final results did not show a statistical significant difference between genders.

The lack of statistical difference between the study groups could be a result of contamination, the active environmental organizations on campus, or an observational effect. The study was contaminated within the first two weeks of the study period when all residence halls across campus learned of the research and requested their inclusion in the study. Since, the residence halls in the control groups were advised of their inclusion in the study, the students may have demonstrated ERB because of the knowledge they were being observed.

A survey sent to the students living in the study residence halls revealed that 94.6% of the students had knowledge of the study, and that 77% participated in ERB. Students showed a propensity for ERB when they were informed on their consumptive behaviors' effects on natural resource depletion, and by being provided with actions they could take to change their behaviors. This research did not show that adding strategies of feedback and group leaders to information increased the percentage of consumption reductions in college students residing on Virginia Tech's campus.



Natural resources, university residence halls, environmentally relevant behavior (ERB), environmental education, water and electricity consumption