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Westwood’s Philbin is town’s energy man

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By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

There was a time not too long ago when there were lights at the library that didn’t work.

Streets weren’t always as bright as they are now. The town was burning money on outdated technology and inefficient energy systems.

Then, Tom Philbin came along.

Philbin, a New York City native with more than 40 years of experience in the power industry and energy conservation, was hired three years ago as Westwood’s first energy manager. Since then, he’s been making the town more energy efficient and saving it money by securing grants and incentives to fund energy reduction projects.

Philbin and his wife, Susan, have called Westwood home for the past 22 years. Three of their five children attended the Westwood Public Schools.

“I feel very strongly about Westwood,” he said. “I’m very committed to seeing what the best things I could do for the town.”

Even at a young age, Philbin was able to figure out how things worked.

At seven, he took radios apart to see what would happen if he switched tubes around.

In eighth grade, he learned how to build stereo systems. As a wedding present for his older brother, it took him 48 hours to build a stereo amplifier.
 
“In those days you could buy all the parts, punch the holes and solder all the wires,” he said.

Then, years later, after earning a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences, Philbin joined the power business and eventually found an interest in energy conservation.

Nobody thought about conservation in the 50s and 60s, he said.

“After the oil crisis in the late 70s, the nation became committed to conserving energy and reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

“At that point in my career, I became heavily involved in the environmental impact of energy consumption as well as methods to reduce and conserve energy use.”

A Brighter Westwood

It didn’t take long for Michael Jaillet, Westwood’s town administrator, to see Philbin was the perfect fit to help make Westwood a brighter place.

“Tom was clearly committed to helping the town improve its pursuit of energy efficiency,” Jaillet said. “And by all accounts, he was clearly capable of achieving that commitment.”

Jaillet said Philbin’s knowledge and experience of conservation measures, not to mention where and how to seek and obtain funding and reimbursements, has allowed the town to invest more than $1.5m in conservation measures with paybacks of a few years.

“Funds that have been saved can be used to enhance the educational experience in the schools and improve the infrastructure of the many building systems in the town,” Philbin said.

Initially, a multi-phase and multi-year project was contemplated to convert the town’s streetlights to LED.
 
“Tom took over the project and was able to negotiate a one-season transition that included alternative uses for the lights (i.e. the possibility of wireless meter reading) — a remarkable achievement,” Jaillet said.

“Tom was also instrumental in pushing the design of the heating and cooling units in the new police and fire stations to be 30 percent more efficient than the design would have been without his input,” Jaillet said.

Two years ago, Philbin installed energy efficient lighting throughout the building that houses the Council on Aging, and all the funding was underwritten by a grant.

Last year he worked closely with the Council on Aging’s center by obtaining a grant to put energy efficient blinds in all of the windows — a huge help in both keeping the center warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.  Presently, he is working on a grant to improve the insulation throughout the building.

Director Lina-Arena-DeRosa says working with Philbin is always easy.

“As our director of operations, Trish Tucke, stated: ‘Tom is truly a pleasure to work with.’

“And that’s exactly how I feel.”

Tricia Perry remembers her first day on the job three years ago as director of the Westwood Public Library when 45 light fixtures were not lit — and nobody knew why they weren’t turning on.

“The gallery was becoming darker every day,” she recalls. “Because of the complexity of the lighting control system, a simple electrical solution was not possible, and no one could determine whether our issues were being caused by wiring, connectivity issues, computer software issues or other mechanical failures.

“Our custodial staff had put in new bulbs; we had tried to work with the lighting console, but nothing resolved the issue.”

Not knowing where else to turn, and knowing the lighting had to be resolved before the ceiling work was completed, Perry said she reached out to Philbin and was thankful he was available as a resource for the town.  
 
“From the moment he became involved in the discussions, Tom demonstrated his commitment and dedication to finding a solution,” Perry said. “He immersed himself in learning as much as he could about the issues that we were facing. With Tom’s help, we were able to isolate what the problem was.”

Philbin also worked through other issues at the library, including re-wiring exterior lights and making adjustments throughout the building so all of the light fixtures would be more energy efficient.

“He’s using all of his knowledge and connections for the advantage of Westwood residents,” Perry said. “He’s brilliant. He’s amazing.”

Philbin says he’s always “looking over the hill” to see what can be done next.

DPW Director Todd Korchin said Philbin was responsible for solar panels on the roofs of the Martha Jones and Downey Elementary Schools, as well as the Thurston Middle School and Westwood High School. He is in the process of developing phase two of the solar program, and hopes this will more than double the current capacity that has been installed.
 
“Since Tom has been on board, we’ve received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants annually that he’s applied. And part of that application process is Tom’s brains and initiatives behind the grants, i.e., developing viable projects,” Korchin said.
 
“It’s teamwork: Tom develops the idea and Patricia Healey ultimately puts it on paper.”

Three years ago, Healey was transferred into the Department of Public Works as an administrative assistant. She works closely with Philbin.

“It’s an education working with Tom,” she said. “Without his knowledge, I don’t believe we would have completed all the projects.”

Healey further states Philbin has the ability to look at a building and based on his experience, determine what can be done to reduce energy consumption and to improve the building’s infrastructure.

The first application took months to process; the second about a week or two — and the third took a matter of days.

A Path To Independence

Philbin grew up in a two-family house in Queens, a borough of New York City — a product of immigrant parents from Ireland.  

He remembers his mother telling him how her father took her on the bars of his bicycle to the train station, America-bound, and wanting a better life for his daughter. It was the last time she saw her father. 

One of six kids, Philbin often jokes with his own children that “there’s more room in our family room and kitchen together than there was for the six kids in our old house with only two bedrooms and one bath. 

“I can’t remember where we all slept,” he said. “But we managed.

“We were all taught from the day we were able to understand what our parents were telling us that we needed to get educated,” he said, “and we all pretty much had to take care of the costs ourselves as soon as we could.” 

But that advice to strike out on their own didn’t stop his family from taking in and helping others. 

His parents opened their home to a first cousin from Ireland, as well as many other immigrants who came to live with the family.

His parents, who didn’t go beyond elementary school, saw education as a path to independence for their children.

“They loved the United States with all the opportunities presented to them and their children,” said Philbin, adding that he and all of his brothers and sisters earned college degrees - and some beyond.

Philbin took his parents’ advice about education seriously. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from Manhattan College. He earned two master’s degrees in nuclear science and radiological health, and a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences from the University of Michigan. 

“My father was concerned I might never work because I was always in school,” he said. 

Philbin’s father was a New York City cop — and, he said, that meant, “You didn’t want to get stopped by the police because my dad knew within 15 minutes.” 

From the time Philbin was in sixth grade, he worked as a paperboy, delivered prescriptions for the local drug store, and was a delivery boy and general clean-up person at a local butcher store. In college, he worked summers as a cabana boy at Atlantic Beach on Long Island, which he says helped to finance his education. 

“I was my own ‘Flamingo Kid,’” he said, “much like the 1984 movie based on a 1950s boy working at beach clubs learning valuable lessons.

“These beach clubs catered to wealthy people, and we were the ones who did all the cleanup and the bartending and service to very influential people. When the weather was good, we often worked 12 hour days — but got good money.”

Philbin’s pursuit of education at his parents urging didn’t always lead down the smoothest of roads. At one point, while at Michigan, it looked as though one of those roads was about to end abruptly. 

“It was clear I was about to quit,” he recalls. “My thesis topic had to do with analysis of the effects of a nuclear reactor accident, and I couldn’t get it to work. I was expecting a certain result. I worked and worked and couldn’t get the result I expected.” 

His father came to him and suggested he take a month vacation and go to Europe. 

“He bought me a plane ticket and said ‘you’ve got to pay for yourself while you’re over there … but I’ll get you there’.” 

Philbin went to Paris and Rome, and stayed in convents because it was so cheap. “It was like a dormitory,” he said, “two bucks a night and you got a bed and breakfast.”

When he returned to school, he started thinking what could be wrong with his thesis project. 

“All of sudden, it dawned on me,” he said. “Maybe my data is correct, and my theory is wrong. That was the light bulb. I finished the project in three months. I then realized: never presume. I thought I knew with absolute certainty what was going to happen. And it didn’t happen. My mistake was in presuming the result. 

“My chairman at the time said to me, ‘you learned the most valuable lesson in life. Don’t presume anything until you have all the facts.’” 

While at Michigan, Philbin served as president of the Newman Society, an organization of Catholic students. They received a grant allowing students to bring speakers who represented the differences in Catholic thought — from the conservative to the most liberal. 

It was the early 1960s and one of the speakers was Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

His talks were on reconciliation of Catholic thought with a democratic society.

“I was responsible to escort him around Michigan. He asked to see my research and spoke of research as one of the most sincere forms of prayer in that it sought absolute truth. His comments greatly influenced my thinking on religion in the modern world and I was greatly impressed by both his personal kindness and clarity of thinking.”

Philbin is often described as pleasant, respectful, polite and upbeat.

“We have team-building exercises that he always participates in,” Korchin said. “It’s almost like he’s a part of our organization, even though he works for the town in general. 

“He’s a great guy and a pleasure to work with — and a tremendous asset to the community.” 

Even when he’s off the clock and enjoying an adult beverage, Philbin is thinking economically. 

His favorite beer is Guinness.  

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s one of the most efficient beers you can drink. It is low in calories and low in alcohol and tastes great.”

Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions she can be reached at lindasfaces@gmail.com.

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