Offices and commercial buildings are a major source of energy consumption in the U.S., responsible for about 20 percent of nationwide power use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (see References 1). Making an office greener and more efficient takes a combination of good planning, new habits and efficient equipment. Fortunately, improving workplace efficiency doesn't need to be expensive, and the use of energy-efficient settings can help almost any office go greener and save money --- and it need not cost a cent to get started.
Control lighting according to need. Automated lighting control systems can turn lights off when certain areas, such as an empty conference room, are unoccupied during work hours, while timers can turn off lights at night and other times when the office is empty. Illumination sensors can adjust the amount of artificial light in a room in response to natural daylight entering through windows (see References 2). If sensors and timers aren't presently in the company budget, simply turn off the light switch when leaving a room, and encourage colleagues to get into the same power-saving habit. Consolidate work areas as much as possible so you don't have to light spaces that are mainly filled with empty cubicles.
Use programmable thermostats. Digital thermostats can be programmed to automatically reduce the climate control settings at night and other times when the office is empty. If your office still uses older, non-digital thermostats, work out guidelines for turning down the climate control at night and when leaving for the weekend. In the winter, remember that the heat generated by both the people and computers in an office can reduce the requirements on a central-heating system. In some settings --- drafty lofts or warehouses --- adding a few small space heaters to office areas might be more efficient than constantly running a large HVAC system.
Turn down the hot water temperature. Outside of food service, many businesses don't need their water heater to provide maximum-temperature water all of the time. A reduction of 10 degrees Fahrenheit in water temperature can save about 3 to 5 percent in energy costs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (see References 3). Turning down your water heater's temperature doesn't cost anything, and it will also reduce long-term plumbing wear and maintenance.
Set your computers to save power. Both PCs and Macs come with power-saving options built in to the operating system at no extra cost. You can set monitors to turn off after periods of inactivity, and computers to automatically shut down or "sleep" at the end of the workday and when employees are out. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that using sleep and hibernate settings can save $75 annually per computer (see References 4). When your office is ready for a computer upgrade, look for models with the Energy Star rating, which indicates lower power usage.
Turn off unnecessary equipment at night. When the office is empty, nobody will be making copies or drinking coffee. Before leaving for the night or weekend, ask the last person out of the office to switch off accessories like coffee makers, printers, desk fans and other power-using devices. When all office equipment is added up, the savings can be substantial (see References 5).
Reduce the amount of waste your business generates. Send files and memos digitally whenever possible, and print on both sides of office paper. Recycle discarded paper and any other items your town accepts for recycling. Invest once in real dishes and cutlery for the office kitchen to cut down on the amount of disposable items you must purchase and throw away.
- Always evaluate the cost of an equipment upgrade against the expected benefit. Some efficiency upgrades pay for themselves over the course of a year or less, while others may require far more use before you break even.
- U.S. Department of Energy: Buildings Energy Data Book, Commercial Sector; 2010
- U.S. Department of Energy: Lighting Control Types
- U.S. Department of Energy: Lower Water Heating Temperature for Energy Savings
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Computer Power Management
- Brookhaven National Lab: Energy Saving Opportunity for Work and Home
Aaron Ziv has been a writer and photojournalist for 10 years in Washington, D.C., and the Middle East. A student of political science and psychology from the University of Maryland, he also does technical and market analysis for a green technology company. His work has appeared in local newspapers, commissioned research and a patent or two. He began writing professionally in 1998.
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