Feature Article - March 2009
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Save Some Green

Smart Cost-Cutting Strategies

By Dawn Klingensmith

Small Steps, Big Savings

Energy usage is an area where a few simple changes can result in major savings, and certain building upgrades and retrofits will reduce repair and maintenance costs, as well. Depending on how compliant employees are, energy costs can be pared down simply by encouraging them to do the same sorts of common-sense things they do at home to keep their utility bills in line, such as turning off lights when they leave a room, dressing warmly in winter to save on heating costs, and adjusting the blinds in their work areas to either block sunlight or let it in to naturally regulate temperature.

In addition, employees' computer monitors should be set to go into low-power "sleep mode" after a period of inactivity. A screen saver is not the same as sleep mode — monitors still use full power when the screen saver is active. There is software available that enables a local area network to automatically put to sleep monitors not actively being used.

At the end of the workday, computers and other equipment should be turned off and power strips unplugged, as power strips consume energy even when the equipment is off.

When it comes to energy conservation, "A lot of times, it's the little things that can add up to make a big difference," said James J. Winebrake, head of the science, technology and public policy department at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Winebrake directs the University-National Park Energy Partnership Program, which brings together university students and faculty with National Park Service employees to find ways to reduce energy use at national park facilities. He says there are three things facilities can do right away that feel like baby steps but actually go a long way toward saving energy and money: replacing light bulbs, installing motion sensors and programmable thermostats, and replacing old HVAC equipment.

"Take out high-energy incandescent bulbs and old fluorescents and replace them with compact fluorescents or high-efficiency fluorescents," he advised.

Then, boost lighting efficiency even more by installing motion sensors where appropriate so the lights automatically turn off when a room is unoccupied. The sensors cost $25 to $50 each, and they usually pay for themselves in less than a year by lowering energy bills, Winebrake said.

Programmable thermostats automatically turn the heater and air conditioner on or off according to a predetermined schedule that takes into account hours of operation and occupancy levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a staged approach to building upgrades. Lighting comes early in the process because it has a significant impact on other building systems, especially to the extent that it affects heating and cooling loads.

Electrically powered equipment also affects cooling loads because with many types of equipment, much of the energy used to run it ultimately ends up in the surrounding space as heat. Appliances and office equipment can be cost-effectively upgraded with more efficient models that qualify for the EPA's Energy Star label. Qualifying products use 25 percent to 50 percent less energy than conventional equipment and typically cost about the same.

Energy Star-qualified new and rebuilt vending machines, for example, incorporate more efficient compressors, fan motors and light sources that can reduce energy use by 40 percent compared to standard models, according to the EPA. Onboard software puts the machines in low-energy lighting and refrigeration modes outside of normal business hours, which can cut energy use by another 20 percent.

Unfortunately, the Energy Star program does not rate electrically powered fitness machines such as treadmills and stair climbers, which are voracious energy eaters.

A staged approach to energy system upgrades will reduce cooling and heating loads, making it possible to replace existing HVAC systems with smaller equipment that uses less energy. Building simulation software is available to show how building systems affect one another.