Save Serious Money With a Business Energy Audit

Whether for a business based at home or in an office highrise, plugging energy leaks can bring measurable savings.

Sluggish sales and hard-to-get loans may blight the business landscape, but cutting energy waste can bring a big payoff to a small company. To shave liabilities off your profit-and-loss statement, aim to slash your power consumption instead of your workforce or the crucial projects that could help your company expand.

An energy audit creates a portrait of the energy demands that matter to your operations--as well as those you can do without--and it can lead to skinny electricity bills and fat tax breaks.

"We all have incentives to manage our utility bill, but many people don't try because they don't know how," says Geoff Overland, who runs IT and data-center programs for Wisconsin's statewide Focus on Energy program. "By efficiently managing our energy, we have an immediate impact on our bottom line."

DIY or Hire a Pro?

Although you won't find a one-size-fits-all approach to an energy audit, you will have to assign someone to be in charge of the project.

If your headquarters is at home or in a similarly small space, free online tools for residential audits will walk you through the process. Utility companies, Energy Star and similar programs, and groups such as the Residential Energy Services Network offer checklists and online calculators.

Once you gather a years' worth of utility bills, spending about half an hour with Enercom Energy Depot software will break down your consumption and suggest ways to trim it.

Pacific Gas & Electric on the West Coast, Duke Energy in the South, and other utility companies also provide Web-based audit tools for small businesses operating in spaces ranging from an apartment complex to a small warehouse. If your business has multiple locations, dozens of employees, or specialized needs beyond those of the usual small office or shop, seek a professional auditor through your local utility.

Checklists and First Steps

A comprehensive energy-audit checklist takes into account the structure of the workplace, the lighting, and all machines, from the boiler room to the workstations. The Federal Energy Management Program checklist should suffice for an in-house audit at a small company.

Among the major first steps are to examine doorways, windows, and insulation for leaks of cool or hot air. A building shouldn't "breathe" unless you've opened a window for air. Heating and cooling are the biggest building energy hogs, so perform regular tune-ups and updates on heating and air conditioning systems, and seek Energy Star-rated equipment.

Since lighting accounts for one-tenth of an electric bill, swapping old incandescent bulbs for fluorescent or LED lighting makes a big difference. Welcome light in from the windows, and install occupancy sensors that shut off lights when employees vacate the room.

Electronics

Consumer electronics account for one-fifth of home energy use, according to the government, but no hard-and-fast figure exists for small businesses. The more your company relies on hardware, the more energy it tends to use.

"The IT workload is growing almost as fast, if not faster, than any other workload in the U.S.," Overland says.

To measure exactly how much each gadget and appliance in your workplace costs in watts and dollars, devices such as the Watts Up or the Kill-a-Watt cost around $100, and some are integrated into power strips. Some utility companies lend watt meters to small businesses for several weeks at no charge.

Studies show that, in a home, electronic devices waste up to one-fifth of their energy consumption on standby power, plugged in but not in use--an easy opportunity for savings.

A typical computer can use 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity or more per year, Overland says. If you pay 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, that's $40 per year to run just one computer. Multiply that by two or three if you don't turn off the PC at night.

Too often, people disable the power-saving settings when they buy a new PC. Instead, take a minute to crank up those settings to an aggressive level on your operating system.

In Windows 7's Control Panel, for example, choose Power Options and select the Power Saver plan to turn off a display after 5 minutes of inactivity and then put the PC to sleep after 15 minutes (or even 5 minutes). Advanced options provide more controls, such as setting a laptop to sleep when you close its lid.

Apple Mac OS X Snow Leopard provides similar options on the Energy Saver pane under System Preferences. Free downloads that go a step further include the Google Desktop Energy Saver gadget for Windows, which displays how much energy all users online are conserving.

Put Electronics on an Energy Diet

Among the simplest methods for reducing your devices' electrical load is keeping them plugged into a surge-protecting power strip that can flip off at the end of the day. Power strips with occupancy sensors, such as those from Belkin, shut down attached peripherals when you step away from a PC.

Switching out old equipment, such as CRT monitors for flat-screen LCDs, may cost more up front but almost always brings long-term power savings. Look for the Energy Star label, which marks everything from air conditioning units to computers to multifunction printers and scanners. EPEAT ratings of energy and environmental design rank desktops, displays, thin clients, and laptops.

To put an existing PC on double duty (or more), Ncomputing offers multiuser tools for PCs that enable one computer to serve more than one staffer simultaneously.

Power-controlling devices can reduce the energy consumed by big, old appliances, such as an aging refrigerator in the office kitchen.

In the Data Center

Businesses that maintain large storage needs or that manage a data center have additional energy concerns. For them, virtualization is a blessing. Overland has seen virtualization save companies $280 and 3500 kilowatt-hours per year per server, thanks to the reduction in server, cooling, and UPS power. Plus, a blade or blade chassis is a wise replacement for other physical servers.

In addition, to optimize a data center for efficiency, you should consolidate equipment, establish proper airflow management, improve power distribution, and use efficient power supplies and protocol data units (PDUs).

Energy and Money Saved

A business renting 2000 square feet of office space in San Francisco could save $1360 by optimizing its electronic devices' power settings, purchasing Energy Star equipment, and using fluorescent lighting, according to PG&E's SmartEnergy Analyzer.

If you work at home, look for consumer tax credits for upgrading windows, doors, and heating and cooling systems, as well as for installing solar, wind, fuel cell, or geothermal energy systems.

Commercial-building owners can enjoy federal tax breaks of $1.80 per square foot if they halve their yearly energy costs. States including California offer additional efficiency incentives and rebates.

More Resources

If you're an IT consultant serving the small to midsize business market, and you'd like to learn how you can contribute to PCWorld Tech Audit, send mail to techaudit@pcworld.com. We're always looking for more talented pros. Follow Tech Audit on Twitter.

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