Shop Management: Control the Current

To keep costs in line, check your electric use

Photo by Robert Linder from Unsplash

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By K. Schipper

For many businesses, 2022 seems like a jump out of the COVID frying pan and into the inflation fire. And, resent them or not, there won’t be masks and vaccines to protect against rapidly rising costs. While it’s unlikely the United States is hit with the same horrendous increases in utility costs, especially natural gas, that are crushing parts of Europe right now, it’s only natural to have a nagging concern that power costs here could soon drive operating expenses through the roof. Here, natural gas is most likely to be used for heating, but electricity is another issue. Whether it’s summer’s blessed air-conditioning, or lighting, or even the staff coffee pot, electricity is key to every shop – not forgetting that in large parts of the country, natural gas drives electric generating plants. Stone was worked by hand for millennia, but today power is the name of the game. So, can a shop save on electricity? With an audit of use and a commitment from those involved, it can be done, and without necessarily spending a bundle to get some answers.

DO IT YOURSELF? Former President Ronald Reagan often generated laughs with his comment on the most-terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” However, when it comes to managing your energy, government sources can offer a good primer on the subject. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy highlight the need to manage energy through their websites. The EPA, through its Energy Star program, offers “Energy Treasure Hunt Guide.” Designed for companies that are concerned about saving energy with their facilities and equipment while taking a DIY approach, the guide does require a one- or two-day commitment from employees and a company owner willing to sell the idea to those workers. By the end of the “Treasure Hunt” companies should have a good idea of where, how, and how much energy is used by the organization; how energy use can be reduced and how it can be used more efficiently. Possible troublesome areas include air leaks; conveyor lines; interior and exterior lighting; air compressors; HVAC; vending machines and office equipment. One advantage to taking this approach is that employees can often readily identify areas where power isn’t used wisely. Less shocking is the fact that often waste occurs during non-operating hours. The real goal of this program, which can be found at https://www.energystar.gov/buildings, is to make employees aware of the need to continue to watch for energy waste and be proactive about it. The Department of Energy’s “A Guide to Energy Audits” is a substantially longer document that reiterates much of the information from “Treasure Hunt,” but gets into more of the nuts-and-bolts of what happens during a professional energy audit and what a business owner should expect from the completed product. The goal is to not only identify energy saving opportunities, but also develop an implementation plan. Perhaps most helpful for businesses is “A Guide to Energy Audits” which provides information on finding an energy auditing firm, as well as providing sample requests for proposals and sample contracts. That guide is available at https://www.pnnl.gov/main/publications/external/technical_reports/PNNL-20956.pdf

"You’d think more shops would have converted from fluorescents or other inefficient lighting types to LEDs." Jim Gieselman Servidyne

POWERFUL OPTION If you like the idea of doing an energy audit but aren’t sure you want to make the effort to find a consultant to do the work, another option may be as close as your latest electric bill. While many energy suppliers offer residential customers the option of a home energy audit, you can (depending on the utility) get the same sort of help at your business. A case in point is Rosemead, Calif.-based Southern California Edison (SCE). The company’s Strategic Energy Management (SEM) program works with industrial customers on identifying areas of energy waste, high energy usage ,and other energy savings opportunities, according to Ron Gales, SCE spokesperson. That can include energy audits at a customer’s facilities, energy modeling and on-site energy coaching. Possibly the best news with the SCE program is there is no co-pay (cost) to participate. The program is funded by all SCE customers through the Public Purpose portion of their monthly electric bill. Gales describes the SEM program as taking a whole-building approach. “It identifies energy waste from business and production processes, as well as capital improvements,” he says. “Some of the ‘fixes’ can be low- to no-cost operational improvements such as turning off inefficient air compressors when not in use, or identifying leaks through SCE-loaned leak detection equipment or implementing occupancy sensors to use lighting more efficiently.” In the case of SCE, the actual program is implemented by Cascade Energy, a consulting firm focused on improving energy efficiency for the industrial customers who are typically the most energy-intensive sector of the economy. Besides assistance identifying the areas covered in the SEM program, it also identified problems where SEM customers can develop a project plan to achieve whole building energy savings. “Employees typically become highly engaged in the program to identify operational savings and align with their company’s sustainability goals as a result of participating in ‘treasure hunts’ and identifying energy savings at their facilities,” says Gales. Nor is savings through energy efficiency the only benefit of the SEM program. Because it takes an integrated approach to energy usage, those being audited also have access to information about Demand Response (DR) and Time-of-Use (TOU) solutions for which customers may be eligible. “Demand Response (the use of battery storage to avoid use during the most-expensive times) programs offer incentives for participation which can help lower costs,” Gales says. Although battery costs have fallen by something like 80 percent in recent years, it remains expensive at this time, he adds, meaning more customers are considering it for reducing emissions and their carbon footprint than financial savings. Time-of-Use, on the other hand, assigns rates based on the size and load of a customer’s meter. Structured to be more expensive during the on-peak period – which for SCE is 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. – it’s likely to benefit larger shops that run a second shift. However, Gales notes that when customers can reduce demand or usage during the on-peak period, they can see bigger savings on their electric bill. An explanation of how this can work, is found at https://www.sce.com/business/rates/time-of-use. And, at least for all SCE customers in the SEM program, they’re also eligible to receive On-Bill Financing to help finance total project costs through their bill savings.

“Some of the ‘fixes’ can be low- to no-cost operational improvements.” Ron Gales Southern California Edison

WHAT YOU PAY FOR The other option with an energy audit is to find, hire and pay an experienced professional to do the job. Jim Gieselman, a principal with the Atlanta-based Servidyne LLC, is one such professional, and even he says for smaller operations his services may not be the best option. “Typically, most consultants are tied up with larger facilities,” he says. “There’s a reason for that. To do a good audit, there are some very fixed costs involved, including a site visit. We have to look at energy efficiency measures and we have to calculate savings on each measure. Then, we must write a report that explains those measures in such a way that the owner can understand and implement them.” The bottom line, Gieselman adds, is that up to about a 50,000 ft² building, the savings just don’t make it worthwhile to the owner to pay what a company such as Servidyne must charge. That’s not to say he isn’t willing to share a few tips based on things he’s observed over the years, though. Gieselman explains that one of the first things he does on a site visit is make some effort to understand how much the various components of the building are taking up as a percentage of the utility bill. Often, it’s either natural-gas heating in the winter, or an air-conditioner burning electricity in the summer. “It bears mentioning that in those kinds of environment, outside doors can stand open far more than they probably should,” he says. “If you want to talk about best practices, a best practice is to keep outside doors closed as much as possible.” In much the same way, if a shop is running either its heat or air-conditioning at full-blast seven days a week, a best practice is to invest in a programmable thermostat to help save power during non-operating hours. For many shops, electric use often comes down to three basic things: air-conditioning, lighting, and then the shop’s equipment. And Gieselman admits that it’s difficult for someone to come in from outside the operation and assess what can be shut down when not in use in terms of process equipment. In those cases, he says it’s up to the shop owner to build a mentality that the operation is going to focus on energy conservation. He likens it to parents telling their children to turn off the lights when they leave a room. “It might begin with saying, ‘When you leave the restroom, you turn the light off,’” Gieselman says. “As a business owner, you can do your own survey and just watch your people. You can get a much better idea of where some deficiencies are or identify the inefficiencies just by watching.” One obvious area where savings are possible is lighting. Gieselman says all an auditor needs to do is look up and assess the lamps installed. It’s also an area where savings are easy to calculate. “You’d think more shops would have converted from fluorescents or other inefficient lighting types to LEDs,” he says. “A lot of business owners probably think they really need to do that, but other things come up, and it gets forgotten.” Those are also areas where working with your electric provider on an audit would make sense, Gieselman adds, just as providing more information on time-of-use electric rates or installing alternate energy sources would. “Consultants just don’t make that much sense for smaller buildings and smaller businesses,” he concludes. “I hate to say it, because it’s my own livelihood, but with the smaller operations, we’re just not that cost-effective.” And, Gieselman offers one piece of parting advice, regardless of which direction you choose to take when doing an electric audit of your business: “Remember: once you get some ideas, then you have to implement them before you gain any savings.”

“Remember: once you get some ideas, then you have to implement them before you gain any savings.” Jim Gieselman Servidyne LLC