Learn about simple steps your company can take to help the environment and reduce energy costs.
By Susan Ladika
Looking for ways to help the environment and, at the same time, boost your bottom line? Exploring energy-efficient technologies might be a way to power up the profits.
"Energy costs look small, but they are an opportunity for savings," says Harvey Sachs, buildings program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, in Washington, D.C. "That savings can flow directly to the bottom line."
Gauge Your Current Usage
It can be challenging for business owners to figure out exactly what their energy use and energy costs are, says Mike MacDonald, a senior researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Because electricity is measured in kilowatt-hours and natural gas is measured in therms, it can sometimes seem like comparing apples to oranges.
To add to the complications, businesses often pay a demand charge, which measures how much energy a commercial customer uses. The monthly demand charge is generally based on the 15 minutes during a billing cycle with the highest average kilowatt usage. "It can be about as high as the energy charge," Sachs says.
So it's often worth the investment to hire an energy expert who can look over your bills and determine your exact costs.
Consider Your Options
Once you have a good read on your actual energy use and costs, it's time to look into the energy reduction strategies that will fit your business best.
Look into Lighting Possibilities
One relatively easy fix is to replace illuminated exit signs that use standard incandescent lamps with ones that use LED lights, MacDonald says. Older signs use incandescent or fluorescent lighting. An incandescent sign costs $28 a year to operate, and emits 574 pounds of carbon dioxide, while a new LED (light-emitting diode) sign, which uses a semiconductor chip, costs $4 annually in operating costs, and generates just 72 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Businesses also can cut back on their lighting bills by installing daylighting systems. Dimmable ballasts and light sensors, for example, can adjust the electric lighting in response to the amount of daylight that is available, says Katie Ackerly, a research staff member with ACEEE.
Sachs says the technology is especially easy to implement in one-story buildings, where skylights can be installed to use the sun as a primary lighting source.
Studies have also found that improved lighting can enhance sales and productivity as it "improves the quality of the experience for the shopper and the employee," Sachs says. Integrated daylighting systems also are available that adjust the lighting up or down, based on the available natural light and occupancy of the building. Their usage has been limited so far due to costs and installation complications, but companies are working on offering more accessible products.
Along the same lines, businesses can install occupancy sensors. At least one big-box retailer has already gone this route by putting sensors on its refrigerator cases in some stores, MacDonald says. The LED lights in the cases go on when a customer walks by. Other types of businesses can do something similar, MacDonald says. The sensors make the lights go on and off based on whether someone is in the room.
Another technology to explore is geothermal heat pumps, which use the ground, rather than the outside air, for heating and cooling. Sachs says they generally work best for moderate-size buildings. If systems are designed well, they are relatively easy to maintain and control, depending on the locale. But like anything else, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. The region of the country, age of the building and type of construction all need to be taken into account. "There are no panaceas in mechanical systems," Sachs says.
When you're ready to consider implementing more energy-efficient technologies, a good starting point is the Department of Energy's Energy Star program.
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