Greening the office: Consider the computers

We've all heard about going paperless and buying more efficient vehicles to cut costs and reduce our businesses' carbon footprint. But consider this: energy use from office equipment has surpassed lighting in most office environments, accounting for 30 to 40 percent of the electricity bill. According to the U.S. EPA, computers and other office electronics consume 74 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That's equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of seven million households.

Green computing is not a new initiative, but up until recently it's been the focus of large enterprises. Corporations and universities have cut millions of dollars from annual budgets using methods now available to smaller organizations. In most industries, there is a PC for each employee on staff, and even small businesses often have three or four servers buzzing away in a closet. Unlike the lights, they aren't typically turned off at the end of the workday.

One small step every computer user can take is to turn off the screen saver. If you're not using the screen, why have it on at all? A monitor can return from sleep mode in one or two seconds. If you remember, screen savers were designed to keep an image from "burning" into the screen of old TV-style CRT monitors. If you do still have one of these, know that a flat screen or LCD monitor consumes 30-40 watts to the 80-150 that the CRT behemoths are blazing through. Today, you can purchase a 17" LCD from a reputable company for as little as $125.

If using Sleep or Hibernate mode brings back memories of hours of lost work when the computer didn't wake up, know that current operating systems do much better with this feature. In Windows Vista, Sleep mode is a low-power state. Files and applications remain open because power to short-term memory is maintained, but the monitor, hard disk, and fan turn off. There should be only a five-second delay until you can resume working. If you choose "Hibernate," data is written to a small file on the hard disk. The computer is almost entirely shut down. The benefit here is if (like me) you typically have ten windows open, which you don't want to close with a Shut Down and have to remember what they all were. Hibernate is also useful before getting on a plane.

Depending on the setup of your computer network, your network administrator or IT provider may be able to use Group Policy via the server to set all office desktops to go to Sleep or Hibernate during off hours.

If individual desktop stations have their own peripherals, such as speakers and their own local printer, newer surge strips or Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) devices have the ability to cut power to those peripherals when the computer is shut down. Most also detect when the computer (plugged into the "control" outlet) goes to standby. Try the APG Back-UPS 750VA, $99, which includes battery backup, or Smart Strip LCG3 Energy Saving Power Strip, $35.

Desktop machines add up, but a company's data center is where energy-saving moves can really pay off. An average-sized database server in a small business setting uses 449 watts. Calculated with Michigan's average commercial electrical rates, that's about $371 per year for that one machine. (Older or larger machines can use upwards of 700 watts.) Since a server's internal workings produce heat that must be dispersed, the related cooling costs can then double that figure. Green building designers are finding ways to circulate that heat where it's needed.

The greatest advance in green computing has been server virualization. Since servers aren't usually at full capacity, the concept is to make one server do the work of many. Advanced software creates virtual images of each "server" and allows them to run independently on the same piece of hardware. Organizations whose data centers consisted of 30 physical servers humming along can now run on 4 or 5. Likewise, a business that currently needs 5 servers can go to 2 – imagine the potential widespread impact on carbon emissions! Again, this is not a new concept, but is becoming more affordable and adoption is on the rise.

For businesses with 10 or more users, it can be cost-effective to replace individual PCs at each desk with thin client workstations. In this setup, applications run on the server and are only displayed at the desktop, reducing the computing power needed for each user and consolidating it more efficiently in one place. Because thin client machines have no moving parts, their typical life span is 8-10 years to the PCs 3-5, reducing the number of machines to be manufactured and disposed of. Best of all, they use only 14 watts of electricity.

Beth Holmes-Bozung is a Principal and Co-Founder of Safety Net, a Traverse City IT services firm and Microsoft Gold Partner. She can be reached at