Lighten Your Load
Tune up, Turn on and Save a Bundle
Did you know that Oakland’s climate was ranked No. 1 in the country by Places Rated Almanac? I don’t know what Places Rated Almanac is either, but for living in a place with such great weather, we sure spend a lot of time indoors. So much time, in fact, that according to Carol Misseldine, Oakland’s sustainability director, we’re spending from a quarter to nearly half of our energy use keeping our buildings comfy and lit up for us. Our indoor haunts keep us away from the trails, waves and parks, but even worse, keeping our buildings perfectly habitable for 12 hours a day exacts a huge environmental cost. The construction and operation of buildings and homes in this country are responsible for nearly half of all our greenhouse gas generation. And you thought it was just coming from the next cube over.
Oakland, the No. 6 green city that it is (according to The Green Guide), is involved in a program called the East Bay Energy Partnership that aims to curb our indoor-juice use, from heating and cooling to the lights we use. Together with the city of Berkeley and PG&E, the East Bay Energy Partnership has two main programs: Building Tune-Up, which performs a free energy audit on big office buildings to find where the systems managing the ecosystem of those buildings have fallen out of plumb, and Smart Lights, which helps small businesses swap out their old fluorescent lights for new, ultra-efficient ones, a seemingly small step that can result in big savings.
Building Tune-UpThe movement to erect greener structures from the start—ones that consume less energy to build and maintain—has been gaining momentum over the last decade as builders realize that for just a little extra cost upfront (around 2 percent on average), buildings can be made much more efficient, paying back that small, added expense 10 times over during the following two decades in energy savings. Sometimes the improvements are simple: office windows that actually open, allowing the air to flow without turning on the AC; or new high-tech windows that can “daylight” office space so that overhead lights can be switched off a few hours a day while also insulating in the winter to help trap heat, reducing heating costs. A popular low-tech solution is planting deciduous trees around a building. The trees provide full shade in the summer and keep buildings cooler, then they lose their leaves in the winter, letting sunlight pass through to warm the building. Done right, projects built to the platinum standard of green design cost half as much to operate as traditional buildings.
But what about existing buildings—airtight boxes built with miles of concrete and bulky air conditioners that can turn a warm summer day into Superman’s Arctic Fortress of Solitude? This is where Building Tune-Up comes in. By taking a fresh look at older buildings by poking and prodding through their leaky pipes, buzzing lights and chuffing HVAC systems to find out where they can be tuned, the program finds often-easy ways to save big money—good for them, and good for us.
Even when installed correctly the first time, the systems constantly managing a building’s climate can fall out of tune. That’s because office buildings are more than empty steel-and-concrete boxes. They are complex organisms with intricate electronic systems that manage water, electricity and air temperature, and when floor plans and tenants change over the years, these systems aren’t often readjusted. Older buildings, especially, are often in dire need of a makeover, but sometimes even new buildings aren’t set up correctly the first time. The Building Tune-Up program, which has been around since 2004, sends engineers experienced in air-conditioning, heating, lighting and ventilation systems to canvass a building, finding places where the systems and sensors could be tweaked to make the building more efficient, ultimately making the lights, HVAC and insulation work together in an integrated design. The engineers then make recommendations to the building owners on how to get their buildings back into shape, potentially saving them big money.
“It’s heating when you should be cooling, fans running all the time. Something’s probably working harder than it needs to,” says Derrick Rebello, president of Berkeley-based Quantum Energy Services & Technologies, which administers the free Bay Area program with nearly $10 million in funding from the California Public Utilities Commission. “It’s not uncommon to have the air conditioning and heating running at the same time.”
In the 13-year-old Dellums Federal Building downtown, a tune-up identified $65,000 in annual savings a year, or around 5 percent, nearly half of that from a simple relocation of temperature sensors. “In many cases the measures that are installed are paid for by the program,” says Rebello. “Tenants would have to pay in some cases, but I’ve never seen it where there was more than a one-year payback.”
In a similar makeover at the Oakland Museum of California, engineers found enough improvements to save the museum an astonishing $160,000 a year after swapping out some older equipment and making improvements to its systems. The tweaks can be small but effective. At the museum, for example, air ducts were re-routed after two 45-degree angle bends were found to be more efficient than a single 90-degree one. Scott Wentworth, an energy engineer with the city of Oakland, calls this energy audit “right-sizing, making improvements in control systems so that you don’t accelerate and brake, but ‘right-size’ into the sweet spot.”
Smart LightsWe all know them. Those buzzing overhead lights that turn our skin a pale green, frosted tubes that eventually made the word “fluorescent” irrevocably linked with the flickering symbols of urban anomie and Saturday detention. Turns out, they’re as antiquated as the dusty cans of Chef Boyardee they only partially illuminate. Fluorescent lights for a long time were a rough trade-off, the sacrifice of light quality for energy savings. But years of technological advancements have given them both, doing away with the buzzing completely and giving fluorescents excellent light quality with a broad color spectrum more akin to warmer tones of standard incandescent bulbs. Today’s fluorescents are more energy-efficient than ever, with a lifespan up to 15 times longer than regular incandescent lights at around a quarter of the energy usage.
Maria Sanders, program manager of the Smart Lights program, works with small businesses in Oakland to swap out their old-fangled lights, helping some businesses reduce their monthly light bills by a third while paying off the new investment in just a few months. With a staff of six, Sanders canvasses local neighborhoods for small businesses with 10 employees or fewer—which she says make up 80 percent of the businesses in Oakland—and writes up a free energy report, targeting their old lights for replacement and recommending whole new ways to light their spaces. Smart Lights staff comes in with a sample bag of different kinds of fluorescent lights and demonstrates them for the customer until they find which ones work the best.
Smart Lights then gives the businesses the often-substantial PG&E rebates on new lights upfront (usually as much as 50 percent of the total cost), which discounts the lights immediately instead of businesses having to mail in a rebate form. And like a good shampoo, businesses can feel it working right away in their utility bill. Sanders says the businesses usually had no idea they were using such inefficient lighting, and when evaluations on the program come back, the businesses often remark on how bright and clean the new lighting is. “People are always really happy with the light quality,” she says. “It’s just so much better than they expected it to be. And it’s so much better than what they were living with.” Since the program began in 2002, it has done installations on about 650 businesses, with an average energy savings of around $1,000 a year per business. And this just by swapping out a few lights.
Even if you don’t manage a small business or a large office building, know that small efficiencies can make a big difference in your energy usage. Now get outside and go for a walk!
—By Jeff Swenerton
—Illustration by Julie Goonan
—Illustration by Julie Goonan
East Bay Energy Partnership ProgramsThe Building Tune-Up program will send out experts to evaluate a building’s control, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting systems, and write a free report on what changes to make and how to administer them long term. For more information, see www.buildingtuneup.com, e-mail email@example.com or call (866) 716-9400.
Smart Lights is a free program for small businesses—any business with 10 or fewer employees can qualify (and it doesn’t have to be a retail space, a common misconception). It is designed to help businesses upgrade to energy-efficient lighting. Representatives from Smart Lights will come out to make recommendations on new lighting and facilitate the purchasing of new systems, including applying PG&E rebates and subsidies instantly. To contact Smart Lights, see www.smartlights.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (510) 981-8955, ext. 223.