Going Green for Greenbacks

Sustainability is all about reducing your energy costs, lowering your overhead and boosting your profits.

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This is the beginning of a season of planning for many drain cleaning contractors. The chill and rain or cold and snow of winter are arriving, and business may be slowing with the weather. Part of that planning process may involve updating or adding on to your business building, or constructing a new office and garage space. And when you think of construction issues, think energy efficiency.

You don't have to be a dyed-green activist to appreciate some ideas accompanying the public discussion about renewable energy resources. All you need is that monthly reminder sent by your utility company. The good news is it may not require much for you to refresh or erect a structure that will put green in another good place: your wallet.

Whether you are remodeling, building new or expanding, there are some general rules to be efficient and save money. One is to be careful of budget creep. This doesn't mean overall budget. It means not becoming so attached to one idea that you make unwise cuts to keep the total budget under control.

Here's one architect's story that serves as a helpful example. The owner of a new commercial building wanted a curtain wall. It was a $100,000 expense, and the architect could have produced the same effect for less cost. But the owner insisted on the design he had in mind and cut away $30,000 and $40,000 items to pay for it. Consider what that may have cost – better windows or a better ventilation system, which could have cut his operating expenses for the next 20 to 30 years.

Back to basics

Options for energy efficiency can be overwhelming, but the basics still apply, says architect Tom Brown, of Stevens Point, Wis. His rules are simple: Insulate the building well, point it in the right direction, and then worry about how to heat and cool it.

Insulation is cheap, he says, and a well-insulated building will be much easier to keep warm or cool. He's a fan of blown-in insulation because it fills every nook, unlike fiberglass bats unless they are installed carefully.

The other part of his idea – pointing in the right direction – has to do with the sun. West-facing windows add heat during the afternoon – bad for buildings in the Southwest. For people in cold climates, north-facing windows promote heat loss. Proper windows can counteract both problems.

Manufacturers now produce windows with glass that has different degrees of infrared reflectivity, Brown says. Infrared radiation is heat, so this modern glass will let sunlight in but not all the heat. In the Southwest you need glass with high-infrared reflectivity to keep the sun's heat out. In colder climates, high-reflectivity glass on the north and west faces keeps heat inside during the winter and out in summer. On the south face you put low-reflectivity glass. In the winter the sun will help warm the building, and in the summer, a shade will block seasonal heat.

Light the way

With insulation and windows addressed, you can think about heating, and Brown says you may not have to think hard. A properly oriented, well-insulated building may not need very-high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment. You may still buy it to cut your operating cost, but your payback period will be longer.

Brown puts it this way: You will pay annual operating costs over and over, and by comparison the initial cost of building in extra insulation or better windows is very small.

Some experts say it's possible today to have a building that, over the course of a year, produces as much energy as it consumes. But like any general statement, that comes with qualifications. Such buildings may be offices or warehouses that don't require a great deal of electric power. You won't have a zero-energy building if you intend to run an arc welder.

Lighting is another major component to your energy costs. About 20 percent of all energy used in commercial buildings is for lighting, according to the federal Energy Information  Administration. In those buildings, big fluorescent lights are still king, and we know they're not the most efficient. Compact fluorescents and the newer LED lights produce more light per watt of input.

There is more to lighting than just bulbs.

Motion-sensing switches can turn lights on only when someone is in a space.

Clustering activities – putting your grinder next to the workbench instead of by itself in a corner, for example – means you can concentrate bright lighting in one spot.

Think daylight. Skylights, light pipes, and light-colored walls and ceilings will maximize your use of all the free light provided by the sun. Consider electric bulbs to be a supplement to sunshine.

Need professional help?

You may be wondering whether you need to hire an architect for this planning. Brown says not necessarily.

An architect will add 6 to 8 percent to the cost of your project on average, but for a smaller project, Brown says you're better off spending the money on an energy audit. That will tell you where your existing building is leaking heat. A check of your local phone listings or an Internet search will reveal companies that perform audits. It is true they usually sell other services such as insulation, Brown says, but they also have good tools for examining the efficiency of your building.

He often requires a blower door test as the final exam for a building he has designed. The test consists of a big fan, which lowers the air pressure inside a building. You can walk around, hold your hand next to windows and electrical outlets, and literally feel the air leaks.

You may have heard of the LEED program, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is from the U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org) and it sets standards for energy-efficient and environmentally responsible buildings. You also may have seen or heard of projects certified as LEED Gold or LEED Platinum.

For a small project like a drain cleaning contractor's shop, certification would not be worth the cost, Brown says. Yet the LEED standards can be a good guideline when you're considering construction.

Whatever you do in your project, don't ignore the marketing advantage of an environmentally sustainable design. In an industry that stresses keeping the environment clean, doing a green building project may get you bragging rights over your competition. And that could mean more green in your wallet.


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