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Columbia looking for ways to cut energy costs

Thursday, September 2, 2010 | 9:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:54 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 2, 2010

COLUMBIA — The city is on its way to saving roughly $55,000 per year by cutting energy costs.

Columbia Office of Sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe is expecting an energy assessment report Friday from consulting firm HDR Inc. outlining where city departments can save money on energy. The assessment will help the city allocate $600,000 of a $1 million U.S. Department of Energy grant.

The report is expected to recommend a wide range of improvements, including retrofitting light fixtures, installing "controllers" for the heating, ventilation and cooling systems, installing new block vehicle engine heaters, adding new insulation, switching to motion detector lighting and encouraging employee behavioral changes, said Buffaloe.

The Columbia Regional Airport, the Grissom Building, the Water and Light facility, the Police Department and Fire Station No. 1 will be the first group to receive recommendations, Buffaloe said. The group includes 25 percent of the total square footage of all city buildings HDR will assess, Buffaloe said. The consulting firm plans to finish assessing the remaining properties and have final results by the end of October.

Buffaloe has been working with the group City Operators Reducing Energy, which consists of staff from Water and Light, Public Works, Parks & Recreation, the Fire Department and the Health Department, to prioritize energy recommendations from HDR. 

Frank Cunningham, energy services supervisor at Water and Light and member of the energy reducing group, spoke highly of light retrofitting projects. Retrofitting entails updating fixtures for the latest florescent lights, which save energy and cut costs, Cunningham said. 

“There is a quick payback in lighting,” Cunningham said. “Usually they have a payback in five to seven years or less.” 

This means, Cunningham said, after five to seven years the cost of labor and new equipment will be paid off and the facility will start saving money due to the new improvements. Cunningham expects the total improvements to save 10 percent to 20 percent in some city buildings. 

The Grissom Building is older and has a lot of possible updates. The building itself is being examined; there are old doors, poor insulation and inefficient lighting systems, Buffaloe said.

HDR is looking at the heating, ventilation and cooling system and wireless controls for thermostats may be installed, Buffaloe said.

“We need a system that senses the temperature outside,” Buffaloe said. Sensing the outside temperature would override a thermostat temperature. For example, Buffaloe said, at 5 a.m. during the winter, if it is abnormally warm, the thermostat would adjust itself.

Block engine heaters might be purchased for city trash trucks and maintenance trucks. “Right now (block engine heaters) are plugged in in the afternoon, using 12 hours of heat, before Public Works needs the engine,” Buffaloe said. 

Instead fleet operations could use engine block heaters that are set on a timer and turn on at 3 a.m. before the driver’s route, according to Buffaloe. 

Motion detectors are another cost saving measure, said Public Works Operations Manager Mary Ellen Lea.  However, they may not suit all environments. 

“If a motion detector goes out because there is no movement and a mechanic is under a truck, the motion detectors are not going to work very well,” Lea said.

It will be the job of Buffaloe and the energy reduction group to prioritize the assessments from HDR, after all three final reports are completed and given to City Council, Buffaloe said. 

“Then we will put out the call for work,” Buffaloe said in a raised voice with a smile on her face.

The whole project, Cunningham said, will create jobs and reduce energy costs for city operators.

Buffaloe wants the members of the public to examine the city’s assessment process and apply some of the strategies to their properties.

“Here is what we are told to do, other businesses could do the same and have some potential savings,” Buffaloe said.


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