Energetic efforts pay off for small businesses

Betsy Markey
Betsy Markey

According to the Department of Energy, small businesses in the United States spend a combined $60 billion a year on energy. But small businesses that invest strategically can cut utility costs 10 percent to 30 percent without sacrificing service, quality, style or comfort — all while making significant contributions to a cleaner environment.

By becoming more energy efficient, small businesses improve their bottom lines while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Small businesses typically can save as much money and prevent as much pollution per square foot as large corporations.

Here’s a look at some myths and facts  compiled by Xcel Energy to help small business owners reduce energy costs and increase cash flow.

Screen savers save energy. Myth. Screen savers were developed to prevent burn-in in computer monitors where there’s a persistent image on the screen for a long time. Screen savers use just as much energy as any program. They’re really not energy savers. Businesses that want to save energy with their computers and monitors should take advantage of power-management settings.

Operating heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment round the clock costs less than shutting systems down. Myth. There’s a perception among some business owners they should run HVAC systems round the clock to avoid increasing the demand charge because of the spike that occurs when HVAC equipment is activated. A spike occurs when equipment comes on, but not enough to affect the demand charge, which is typically calculated on 15 minute interval average demand. Running HVAC equipment all day and all night wastes energy by cooling or heating empty office space and shortens the life of the equipment. Moreover, running the HVAC 24/7 could affect comfort. That’s why some people wear sweaters when they go to their offices in the summer.

Surge protection devices save energy. Myth. SPDs are essentially very fast switches that remain inactive until a surge comes down the power line that exceeds a certain threshold. There’s no physical mechanism for SPDs to save energy.

Leaving lights on sometimes wastes less energy than turning them off and on. Mostly myth. For incandescent bulbs, it’s always better to turn them off whenever you leave the room. The mechanism for failure in an incandescent bulb is evaporation from the filament. As the lamp  burns, material evaporates from the filament in an uneven fashion. Over time, a weak point develops. Eventually, when you turn the light on, it’s going to fail at that weak point. For that reason, incandescent bulbs should always be turned off when they’re not in use. For fluorescent lights, the situation is a little different. There’s a brief power surge when you turn on the light, but no real impact. However, fluorescent lamps wear out more quickly the more frequently they’re turned on and off. As a rule of thumb, if someone is going to leave the room for more than five minutes, they should turn off the lights. The operating life of a light emitting diode (LED) lamp is unaffected by turning it on and off.

Leaving office equipment turned on lengthens its longevity. Myth. Some business owners believe it’s better to let office equipment run continuously rather than turning it off at the end of the day. They think this practice will lengthen the life of the equipment. Some people even think it’s more energy efficient to keep office equipment running. In reality, companies waste between 200 and 1,331 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity each year for every computer that’s left on around the clock, seven days a week. Leaving computers on 24/7 won’t prolong their useful lives, either. Most computer switches can handle at least 40,000 cycles — typically good for five to seven years — and can probably handle many more cycles than that. So turning equipment off will not reduce its expected lifetime. There’s a small spike in power consumption when equipment is first turned on, but the amount of energy in that spike is very small compared with the amount used if the device is left running continuously. Also, turning equipment off will reduce its vulnerability to any power-quality events, particularly if you turn it off at the power strip. It’s important to mention that some equipment continues to consume a small amount of power even when it’s off — so-called “phantom power.” So if you want to save even more energy, turn these devices off at the power strip rather than  at the switch on the device itself.

For more energy saving tips, visit  the U.S. Small Business Administration Web site at www.sba.gov.