Tips for lowering your dreaded utility bills

REGION – There was a lot of cold and snow to end 2005. Great for outdoor fun, not so good for business operating expenses.

Most likely, your first couple of utility bills for the winter heating season were kickers compared to last year. With heating costs projected to be as much as 40 to 50 percent higher, you may be wondering – or doubting – if your building is running as efficiently as it could be.

John Richards of Apollo Engineering in Traverse City is a professional engineer who specializes in building systems design and product and process design. As businesses face higher utility bills with winter really baring down, Richards thinks business owners should take the time to learn how their heat and electric systems work.

Engineers such as Richards can offer that “whole system” perspective. The idea is if you understand how your building systems work, you can make smarter choices and investments when it comes to issues of efficiency and savings.

According to Richards, most operations can reduce their utility bills 20 to 25 percent with a two-year payback. In this context, “payback” is the number of years it takes to recover the cost of the energy upgrade from the energy savings.

Mark Perry, a building operations specialist, said he always tries to keep the payback under two-and-a-half, though one to one-and-a-half years is optimum.

Richards said he will provide an initial consultation with a business, usually for free if it’s a local company. He will look at the building systems and determine if there is room to save. If so, he will come up with plans for “x” amount of savings and present it to the owner.

“I might give a shopping list of savings-you can do this for 10 percent savings, this for 20 percent, and so on,” Richards explained.

But if you’re thinking you can’t afford the cost of doing a big project right now, there are smaller changes you can make that will save you energy and money.

“A project doesn’t have to be completely renovating an existing system,” said Richards. “Maybe your company can be helped with a 10 percent reduction in costs. With minimal adjustments to the units, as they are [presently] installed, 10 percent is almost always achievable.”

So, what is a simple project to start with?

“Lighting is an easy way to justify paybacks, especially in an older building,” said Perry.

Many energy-efficiency organizations suggest replacing incandescent bulbs with compact flourescent ones, which can last up to 10 times longer and use some 75 percent less energy. Incandescent bulbs consume more energy for heat than for actual light, which is why you can’t touch them when they are on. In fact, as little as 5 percent of electricity consumed is turned into useful light, according to the American Public Power Association. Installing occupancy sensors are another good idea.

Going a step further, a lot of buildings don’t have good controls, Perry added. In that case, “recommissioning” is sometimes the answer. Recommissioning involves examining an existing building’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) and electrical systems to see how they are operating compared to their designed or intended operation.

“If they’re not properly working, it can lead to overages,” says Richards. In fact, both men worked with a local school on reducing utility bills and this recommissioning process contributed to a 50 percent savings with their bills. He and Richards also worked together on the building that houses Crema in downtown Traverse City. While the initial work was done three years ago, they have continuously monitored the building’s efficiency, fixed problems that have cropped up, and those adjustments have led to cost savings.

So if you have been watching your utility bills steadily rise as the days have grown darker and the cold spells are lasting longer, consider finding out if there are ways you could be running your building more efficiently and saving some dollars to boot.