Best Ways for Small Businesses to Optimize Energy Systems

One of the hardest parts of embarking the road to optimize energy systems is deciding where to begin. Do you approach it as a bundled energy project or through triage, addressing the neediest equipment first? Many factors, including age of your equipment, the type of your business, your local utility rates and your access to capital, determine the answer. If you have limited funds, waiting until you have equipment failure before you replace it may seem like the most prudent strategy, but it will usually result in the loss of utility incentives or rebates for upgrading to more efficient equipment. But if you are building or remodeling, incorporating a design that will optimize energy systems makes the most sense. Doing it right the first time is ultimately much cheaper than prioritizing upfront costs over long-term savings. Many utilities offer incentives for new construction projects as well.

Here are several areas to consider when identifying and prioritizing projects:

  1. Building shell: The building shell tends to offer the biggest bang for your capital. When thinking about the cost, remember that new construction or major upgrades should be purchased on a “life-cycle costing” or return-on-investment basis, rather than lowest initial cost. Often times focus on the life-cycle cost can result in a better long-term solution. Plus, the golden rule of construction is it’s less costly to put efficiency measures in when building than to make even more costly upgrades to insulation, windows, walls or roofing material later.
  1. Lighting: For every small business, lighting is a critical component. It affects productivity, comfort, aesthetics and performance. Lighting upgrades are small businesses’ single most effective way to achieve dramatic energy savings: Simply replacing inefficient lighting and adding lighting controls can offer lighting energy savings of more than 90 percent. And don’t concentrate only on the lamps—exit signs, lighting fixtures and lighting controls can have a huge impact on your efficiency. Many utilities-such as National Grid, PECO and Black Hills Energy-offer small business direct install programs that cover a substantial portion of the cost of these initiatives to optimize energy use and their installation, include interest-free financing and make participation easy.
  1. HVAC: Proper heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (known as HVAC) are at the heart of a comfortable, healthy and productive work environment. More than 30 percent of the energy consumed in commercial buildings goes HVAC, making these systems an important component in reducing operating and energy costs. One of the first steps to take is to identify ways you can reduce your load (heating and cooling usage) by making your building envelope “tighter.” As Energy Star’s Small Business Guide says, “Reducing your facility’s load allows existing systems to operate less frequently and newer systems to be designed smaller, thereby lowering operating costs.” The biggest mistake you can have in your HVAC system is oversizing, which increases both your capital cost and your operational cost. Innovative, occupant-responsive control systems for HVAC in buildings are the new paradigm for efficiency. Common control strategies include programmable thermostats, multiple zones, and CO2 demand sensors. These strategies can be specified on new heating and cooling systems and retrofitted to older systems as well. Occupant responsive systems, both in HVAC and in lighting, change the notion of a standardized comfort norm and create the potential for deep reductions in energy use—not to mention greater comfort. Many utilities, like Black Hills Energy, have gas programs to help subsidize the cost of these improvements, while easing the installation process.

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