Reduce energy use and save money in your hospital with these easy-to-follow strategies
Hospitals consume huge amounts of energy serving patients, visitors, and staff 24/7.
And we all know energy isn’t free.
That leaves you exploring ways to reduce operational expenses in order to improve your bottom line.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
What if there were simple actions you could take to reduce costs and increase patient and staff comfort in your hospital?
Would you be on board?
Sure you would.
In this post we’ll explore basic tactics to reduce your hospital’s energy spend – some low- or no-cost, others more extensive.
And we’ll lean on the sound advice of your peers and industry experts in areas such as heating and cooling, lighting, and building automation systems.
When we’re done, we’ll leave it to you to decide where to apply the savings.
Understanding Energy Use In Hospitals
The biggest sources of total electrical energy consumption in hospitals are lighting, cooling, and ventilation, to the tune of 72 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That’s a huge number and an excellent place to look for savings opportunities.
But before you begin thinking about energy savings, it’s prudent to understand how power companies bill for electricity.
Consumers such as hospitals are charged for electricity based on their total monthly consumption and demand.
Consumption charges reflect how much energy you used during a billing period, measured in kilowatt hours (kWh), while demand records the highest amount of power you used during the same billing period (usually 15 minutes, measured in kilowatts (kW).
Think about consumption as your vehicle’s odometer as it records your total miles. Conversely, demand resembles your vehicle’s speedometer climbing as your speed – or in this case energy use – increases.
Most people understand consumption, but demand charges are just as important because they can account for 25 to 50 percent of your electric bill!
Troy Nickel, plant engineer at Salina Surgical Hospital, recommends several steps to eliminate the potential for paying more.
“Make sure you stagger equipment starting, or add [variable frequency] drives where you can to offset high peak demand charges.”
Now that we have a better understanding of electrical charges, let’s examine ways to reduce energy usage.
Where to Start Saving Money in Hospitals
If you’re thinking about reducing your hospital’s energy consumption but don’t know where to start, the process may seem daunting at first.
Brian Leabo, market director for plant operations, maintenance, and safety at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, suggests keeping it simple.
“Start small, easy, [look for] low hanging fruit that you can do in-house,” he says. “Lighting, LEDs, occupancy sensors, etc. Then move into things like VFDs [Variable Frequency Drives], balancing and recommissioning systems…waterproofing, building envelope, etc.”
Another option is to track your utility cost per square foot, says Tracy Robinson, director of plant operations at Southwest Medical Center in Liberal.
“I think everyone should be tracking their cost and see what the trends are. Is there a way to cut usage or create savings? It can be very easy to have an impact with just a few of the items I listed,” he says, which include lighting retrofits, VFD additions, setting thermostats at 72 degrees.
How an Energy Analysis Can Benefit a Hospital
Understanding how your hospital uses energy has many benefits as you begin looking for ways to reduce energy consumption, says Sean Miller, PE/MBA/LEED AP, project manager and energy engineer with Integrated Consulting Engineers Inc. in Wichita.
This can be achieved by utilizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program, which helps businesses such as hospitals save money through superior energy efficiency.
“In order to manage energy usage you need to measure it,” Miller says. “By utilizing EnergyStar to score the building it gives owners and maintenance a good look at how their hospital measures up to similar facilities across the country. Regardless of whether they achieve a score of 50 (average) or above a 75 (minimum certification) it gives them the ability to develop a target of where they want to be and then they can develop a plan on how to get there.”
Hospitals, Miller says, can expect to reduce their energy use by participating in the program, which scores hospitals on a scale of 1 to 100 based on their energy performance.
“Studies have shown a 3-5% reduction in Energy by just participating. Again you cannot manage what you do not measure and by just knowing how bad or good your building is performing will affect how you manage it immediately.”
An ENERGY STAR Partner gathers the data for the score by conducting a statistical analysis of your hospital. Energy companies also exist that can perform an analysis of your hospital’s electrical use and make recommendations for positive changes.
“EnergyStar offers a free Portfolio Manager on their website at www.energystar.gov. Anyone can do it, but it does take time and research to complete correctly, and if you are a higher performing building that meets the minimum score of 75 (out of 100), your building can be eligible for Certification, which is a great honor,” Miller says. “However, to complete certification it requires a Professional Engineer to certify results and sign off. Many companies including hospitals opt to hire an Energy Company or Energy Engineer to complete the Portfolio Manager and all other requirements.”
Click here to download the EnergyStar score for hospitals portfolio manager.
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of measuring and managing energy use, let’s begin with the low-hanging fruit.
Turning Things Off in a Hospital Saves Energy
We realize it sounds too simple to be included here, but you’d be amazed at how changing employee behavior can drive savings. Miller agrees.
“The simplest way to reduce energy is through a behavioral program. This can be a no-cost solution if taken on by hospital management. Educate your staff to turn off lights, schedule HVAC systems when needed, etc. Hiring an energy company or energy engineer can also help you with this process.”
Ask employees to shut off lights when exiting rooms or power down or place in sleep mode computers, printers, and copy machines overnight (smart power strips also will shut off these devices when not in use).
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends setting computers to enter “sleep mode,” after 20 minutes of inactivity or shut down after two hours. The practice can save up to $50 annually.
Ask maintenance staff to identify and minimize conditioning to areas such as cafeterias, offices, or classrooms overnight because they often remain vacant. Generally, there’s no reason to keep a room at 70 degrees if no one is in it!
If you save just 1,000 kWh practicing these behaviors, you’ll shave $120 off your electric bill (based on average electricity cost of $.12/kWh).
And all you had to do was ask!
Maintain Your Hospital’s Heating and Cooling Systems
Like all things mechanical, heating and cooling systems require scheduled maintenance.
Ask your maintenance team or outside service specialist if they follow a preventative maintenance plan designed for your building and equipment. Proactive maintenance ensures that mechanical systems operate efficiently while extending their lifecycles.
If the answer is “No,” challenge them to create one.
Here are some of the basic tasks include in your plan (if applicable):
- Clean, lubricate, and calibrate economizers. Since they utilize outside air to save energy, economizers can drastically increase your energy bill if not working properly.
- Clean the coils! Dirty coils decrease a machine’s efficiency, and we’ve seen this all too often. Your coil should not look like a Chia Pet.
- Sequence your chillers. These large machines have specific ranges where they operate most efficiently. Turn chillers on or off to keep the ones operating in their target zone.
- Inspect steam traps. You’ll avoid wasting heat and damaging your system. One failed steam trap can waste more than $50 per month. And it’s not uncommon for a hospital to have hundreds, possibly thousands. It adds up!
- Maintain cooling towers. Towers have the power to influence your other systems. Make sure the influence isn’t a negative one.
- Change air filters. This should be done monthly or more if necessary.
- Check airflow. Place your hand next to air registers to see if you can feel air movement. If not, your ductwork and equipment should be inspected.
- Treat your water. Like cooling towers, water also influences your other systems. Untreated water can lead to scale buildup in boiler or chiller tubes, greatly reducing a machine’s efficiency.
Maintain Your Hospital’s Building Automation Systems
Another system that requires attention is your Building Automation System (BAS).
Considered the brains of your building, a BAS monitors and controls your heating and cooling equipment, fire and security systems, lighting, and more. It tells those systems when to start and stop and to operate with minimal energy use.
Hospitals are wonderful candidates for building automation due to their energy consumption and varied heating and cooling needs.
Building automation also can decrease your peak electrical demand by powering down systems when the electrical draw reaches a certain level.
BAS systems should be checked regularly to ensure temperature set points are correct and areas in your hospital are not being heated or cooled unnecessarily, as was the case at Salina Surgical Center.
“Verify your control system integrity, since controls drift over time,” Nickel says. “One example is we found our surgery air handler discharge air sensor had drifted over the years and was reading 5 degrees warmer than what it actually was in reality.”
Operating rooms in particular experience unnecessary cooling because of their specific needs and usage patterns.
Leabo recommends utilizing building automation “to watch systems that may be fighting each other [and] control limits on HVAC controls.”
The activities we’ve discussed can be done for little or no cost, depending chiefly on whether they can be conducted in-house vs outsourced.
Next, we’ll look at options that require a larger financial commitment but can pay for themselves quickly with the acquired savings.
Upgrade Your Hospital’s Building’s Systems
Over time, building systems break down or become too old to operate efficiently. Replacement may be the only option in these cases.
While a higher-cost alternative, the energy savings from newer, more efficient equipment often pays for upgrades over their lifetimes.
“Sometimes you have to spend money to make money,” Leabo says. “The hard part is doing the math to show the ROI. There are companies out there that specialize in these things, but be careful on your selection.”
Here are heating and cooling systems upgrades that might make sense for your hospital:
- Replace old boilers and chillers. Budget for the replacement well in advance to cover the cost, and make sure the equipment is sized for your building.
- Install Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs), which allow motors to operate at lower speeds, thus saving energy.
- Install occupancy sensors to automatically detect when lights need to be on and off, rather than relying on staff to remember.
- Consider upgrading your building automation system. Or, if your hospital utilizes a pneumatic control system (compressed air), upgrade to a digital one. The energy savings it generates plus its usefulness often covers the initial expense.
Upgrade Your Hospital’s Lighting
Remember the statistic earlier about lighting, cooling, and ventilation accounting for 72 percent of a hospital’s total energy consumption?
Of the three, lighting makes up 43 percent!
Lighting upgrades can generate compelling energy savings.
That’s why Leabo, Robinson, and Nickel all suggest lighting upgrades. In fact, Robinson oversaw a complete lighting retrofit at his 240,000 sq. ft. facility, replacing T12 lamps and ballasts with far more energy efficient T5 lighting.
“We had a payback of one-and-a-half years when we did the lighting retrofit,” Robinson says. “Keep in mind you should do a re-lamp every five years based on the fluorescent tube, [because they] lose efficiency after that. The total cost was somewhere in the $20K to $30K range for the total building, and this was done sometime before all the LEDs hit the market. They are building some today for healthcare and in different light colors.”
Upgrading to LED lighting has become more popular – and affordable – in recent years because it’s efficient, flexible, long-lasting, and environmentally friendly. Plus, LEDs can be used both indoors and out.
Nickel says he has retrofitted his lighting to LEDs, including his T8 fixtures.
“I would definitely go LED everywhere possible,” he says. “However, I would investigate fixture retrofits as opposed to replacement fixtures. Otherwise, you’re back to replacing the entire fixture once the LEDs have expired.”
LEDs often work well in parking lots, too, since lots are frequently overlit, leading to light pollution, glare, and wasted energy.
The Benefits of Commissioning Your Hospital
When a hospital has been built but before it’s turned over to its owner, it usually goes through a commissioning process.
This ensures that all of its systems – mechanical, plumbing, electrical, building interiors, exteriors, lighting, etc. – operate as the owner intended.
Existing hospitals can be recommissioned if significant changes have been made to the building, such as new additions, remodeling, changes in how areas are used, etc.
While not an energy retrofit, the recommissioning process can lead to substantial savings when a service professional makes improvements to a hospital’s existing building systems, enhancing its overall performance.
“Just like your car needs a periodic tune-up to stay running correctly, so does your building,” Miller says. “Over the course of time, which can be anywhere from months to years, a building falls out of compliance with its original design intent. This can be caused by many factors including a poor design, construction issues or most commonly changes in the building control system like overrides and scheduling. Hiring a commissioning agent and/or Energy Engineer to perform a recommission of your building can yield significant energy savings sometimes up to 30% and often the payback is within three years or less.”
Nickel says Salina Surgical Hospital has entered this phase.
“I am in the process of some recommissioning behavior by upgrading, retrofitting, and calibrating the control system.”
Hospitals are good candidates for recommissioning efforts, especially where heating and cooling systems are concerned, due to indoor air quality requirements. Experts suggest revisiting the process every three to five years.
The Importance of Standardization in Hospitals
It’s not uncommon for hospitals to utilize heating and cooling equipment and controls from a wide array of vendors.
It happens when owners make upgrades and approve additions because jobs often get awarded to the cheapest bidders, which vary from project to project.
This can lead to confusion when systems attempt to communicate with each other. It also makes maintenance and upkeep difficult, especially if you have an in-house team responsible for building management.
Where suitable, standardize your heating and cooling systems. You likely will see efficiencies increase, and it will allow your maintenance team the opportunity to gain expertise with one manufacturer’s products.
Developing a long-term relationship with a single vendor also may lead to better contract and purchasing pricing.
Hospitals face a number of unique challenges due to the nature of their business. Finding ways to administer rising operational costs may feel overwhelming.
Remember: the task is not impossible.
Begin by learning how your building uses energy. Identify no-cost or low-cost opportunities for improvement, and work your way toward larger, more significant changes.
Don’t be afraid to seek the advice of your peers and the assistance of industry experts when needed.
Your efforts – and the health and well-being of your hospital – will be rewarded.
Is energy use an issue in your hospital? Do you need assistance in identifying opportunities for savings at your facility? If you would like to discuss these questions in more detail with a commercial building expert, please contact Joe Reintjes at firstname.lastname@example.org or Curtis Winter at email@example.com. Or call 316-265-9655.
Knipp Services works with commercial and industrial building owners to lower operational expenses and increase building comfort. We provide services that enable owners to have high-performance buildings. “Making Buildings Better” sums up the mission statement of Knipp Services.