Walking the Talk at MIT: John DiFava

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Deborah Halber, MIT Energy Initiative Correspondent

John DiFava John DiFava, director of Facilities Operations and Security, is taking steps to help his staff—from carpenters and systems engineers to custodians and gardeners—to conserve energy while performing traditionally energy-intensive tasks. Photo: Justin Knight

Among American law enforcement agencies, the Crown Victoria is still the iconic cop car. But at MIT, that reigning bestseller has been dethroned by a hybrid.

Switching from titanic gas-guzzlers to more fuel-efficient hybrids and V6s for security, grounds crews, and mail distribution is just one of the environmentally friendly measures John DiFava is incorporating as director of Facilities Operations and Security.

Almost two years ago, DiFava, chief of the MIT Police and director of security and campus police services, gained additional responsibilities and a new title: director of Operations and Security. From his office within the Department of Facilities, he oversees the department’s largest group, composed of the MIT police; custodial services; grounds, including recycling and movers; mail services; parking and transportation; and repair and maintenance, which includes the operations center that monitors the Institute’s life safety and mechanical systems.

The staff is diverse—project managers, carpenters, systems engineers, custodians, mail processors, and gardeners—but they all are focused on helping MIT conserve as much energy as possible while doing traditionally energy-intensive tasks. Meeting this objective requires some creative thinking.

“When you think of policing, you think of the Crown Victoria,” DiFava said. But he asked, “Is that the right vehicle for this venue?” To help ease his officers away from tradition, DiFava acquired MIT’s first hybrid Ford Escape for the command staff, which includes him and several other administrators. “We use it for transports, for MIT President Susan Hockfield, and for detectives,” he said. “It’s an all-wheel-drive SUV, but it gets in the mid-30s for gas mileage.”

The same trend is under way for maintenance and ground crew vehicles. DiFava traded in two existing vehicles for one four-cylinder hybrid pickup. Mail Services is now using a Ford Escape hybrid to pick up and deliver the more than 10 million pieces of mail the department handles each year.

 “We’re trying to reduce the size of the vehicles and use hybrid vehicles, and I think that’s making a big difference,” DiFava said.

As more of the Crown Vics come up for trade-in, DiFava plans to replace them with Dodge Chargers. “We save gas, and [the Charger] has all the pep we need for this area.” Of MIT’s seven security vehicles, one is currently the SUV hybrid and two are six-cylinder Chargers. Officers also rely heavily on bicycles to patrol campus.

Police aren’t the only ones biking more. A hundred newly added bike racks—including two equipped for small repairs—are already full. Increasing MIT’s T pass and commuter rail subsidy from 30 to 50 percent has allowed the Institute to exchange leased parking spaces on campus for additional spaces at Wellesley College and Lincoln Lab, where students and staff can park and take campus shuttle buses.

Through a recent campaign to save power inside buildings, custodians will turn off lights when they are done cleaning—but only if occupants have given them the go-ahead. “People leave power on for a reason, so we can’t power down indiscriminately, but as part of this campaign, occupants can post where we can and cannot switch off power,” he said.

While being cognizant of MIT’s night owls who keep lights on for safety, “when you think of the amount of offices and space we have here, the savings for powering down is considerable,” he said.

By the same token, a new initiative to lower heat and raise air conditioning controls by 1 degree is expected to have minimal effect on comfort but “save an awful lot of money. One degree doesn’t sound like much, but in a place like this it should be significant,” DiFava said. Next year, depending on feedback, it may get bumped to 2 degrees.

Custodians are using a new floor-cleaning machine that electrically converts water into a chemical-free cleaning solution. The Tennant Co.’s T5 Walk-behind Floor Scrubber uses the company's ec-H2O technology to clean without using any soap. Not only is it environmentally friendly, it saves as much as $500 per year in chemicals and covers more territory in less time.

Similarly, to reduce waste and chemicals, custodians are using more hand-held spray bottles and stations that dole out the exact amount of cleaner needed. DiFava noted that managers are driving many of these initiatives by saying, “Let’s look at these new machines and test them.”

Outside the buildings, groundskeepers avoid chemical fertilizers when possible and are switching to recycled rubber mulch. “We’re going full guns all green,” he said.

To help out with the steadily increasing level of recycling on campus, MIT has purchased a truck capable of compacting commingled glass, plastic, and metal, reducing by half the number of daily runs to a processing plant in Charlestown. The larger capacity truck also allows more pickups per week, avoiding full bins that prompt people to throw away instead of recycle, and provides recycling services for the first time to off-campus Independent Living Groups (ILGs).

“I think [going green] makes perfect sense,” said DiFava, who describes himself as “an outdoors person” who makes every effort to reduce his own household’s carbon footprint. “I grew up in Hyde Park and I remember when you could walk across [the pollution] in the Neponset River,” he said. After much remediation, the Neponset is now cleaner than it has been for two centuries: a testament to what can be accomplished with a commitment to the environment.